Stress Management: Escaping the Whirlwind

The pace of work in the United States is accelerating at an alarming speed. And like other workers, environmental professionals are feeling the impact.

Whether you're an environmental consultant cranking out an ever-expanding number of billable hours, an in-house environmental manager who's had to assume additional job duties because of company layoffs or any other type of environmental professional trying to survive in today's turbulent economy, there's a strong chance you're dealing with more job stress than you did a few years ago. Americans are now outworking those famous overachievers, the Japanese -- an annual 1,966 hours per U.S. worker versus 1,889.

In a survey conducted in August 2000 among 900 readers of the Industrial Safety & Hygiene News on health and safety issues, 73 percent of the survey participants reported that the pace of their work is increasing and 51 percent said that job stress is the health risk that concerns them most heading into 2001. The respondents emphasized that stress is caused by longer work hours, faster work and inadequate staffing. Likewise, in the more than 800 responses to Environmental Protection's 2001 Salary Survey, which is featured on page 14, there were numerous comments about the increasing stress in the environmental field because workers are being asked to do more work with fewer resources.

According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health's (NIOSH) report, Stress?At Work (, job stress can be defined as the harmful physical and emotional responses that occur when the requirements of the job do not match the capabilities, resources or needs of the worker. Mood and sleep disturbances, digestive problems, headaches and disturbed relationships with family and friends are examples of stress-related problems. Stress also plays an important role in several types of chronic health problems -- especially cardiovascular disease, musculoskeletal disorders and psychological disorders.

Your health is not the only thing that suffers when you're forced to work under stressful conditions. Research shows that all work and no play makes you less productive. According to Barbara Bailey Reinhold, EdD, author of Free to Succeed: Designing the Life You Want in the New Free Agent Economy (Plume, 2001), "Your creativity and your judgment are impaired when you're in overload all the time."

The NIOSH report points to certain job conditions that may lead to stress:

  • Heavy workload, long work hours and hectic or routine tasks that provide little sense of control;
  • Lack of participation by workers in decision-making, poor communication in the organization and lack of family-friendly policies;
  • Poor social environment and lack of support or help from coworkers and supervisors;
  • Conflicting job expectations and too much responsibility; and
  • Job insecurity and rapid changes for which workers are unprepared.

So how can you learn to stay calm in today's high speed workplace? Company stress management programs can teach workers about the nature and sources of stress, the effects of stress on health and personal skills to reduce stress, such as time management. However, as pointed out in the NIOSH report, stress management programs' beneficial effects are frequently short-lived and they often ignore the root causes because they focus on the worker and not the environment. It is also important for the company management to take steps to identify the stressful aspects of work, such as excessive workloads, and then develop strategies to reduce or eliminate the identified stressors. A combination of organizational change and stress management programs is often the most useful approach in preventing or reducing stress at work.

Numerous books on stress management can also help you handle your harried work schedule. For example, in their book The Stress Owner's Manual: Meaning, Balance and Health in Your Life (Impact Publishers, 1996), Ed Boenisch, PhD, and C. Michele Haney, PhD, offer suggestions for work stress buffers. These include tips on increasing physical activity, improving diet habits, becoming more effective at time management, using relaxation exercises and evaluating other job options.

Other useful sources include:

  • National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) - or call 1-800-356-4674.
  • Making a Life, Making a Living: Reclaiming Your Purpose and Passion in Business and in Life
  • by Mark Albion (Warner Books, 2000);
  • Burnout: The High Cost of High Achievement
  • , by Herbert J. Freudenberger (Anchor Press, 1980);
  • How to Get Control of Your Time and Your Life
  • , by Alan Lakein (New American Library, 1974); and
  • Learned Optimism
  • , by Martin E. Seligman (Knopf, 1991).

If you're suffering from stress overload, now is the time is to deal with it. You need to escape from the pressures of your high velocity work environment before you compromise your health and your sanity. After all, you're all you've got.

This article originally appeared in the August 2001 issue of Environmental Protection, Vol. 12, No. 8, p. 6.

This article originally appeared in the 08/01/2001 issue of Environmental Protection.

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