What to do?  What to do? What to do?

What should you do with the stress you feel about work?

Slightly Helpful Answer #1: Learn to Be More Productive

A widespread approach to work stress is productivity advice—learn how to focus better and organize your tasks; in other words, figure out how to keep up.

Productivity is a slightly helpful answer. It is beneficial to learn proven ways to prioritize in a 24/7, always on, work-life reality. I say “slightly” because getting more done does not reach to the underlying “threat” reality that drives stress.

Slightly Helpful Answer #2:  Manage Your Stress

Your HR Director, Harvard Business Review, and every wellness coach will suggest that the answer to stress is to manage it. Managing stress involves learning the techniques needed to contain or mitigate the effects of stress in your life. Examples include mindfulness, meditation, exercise, yoga, finding a hobby, therapy, enhanced sleep techniques, and deep breathing exercises.

Stress Management is helpful for two reasons:

  1. The term implies that stress is here to stay. There is no easy escape from a demanding world, no such resort-like job of choice where you can permanently eliminate the emotional contaminants in your world. Life, especially work life, calls for grit, tenacity, and determination. No wimps permitted, so learn to deal with it.  As a grumpy Gen-Xer, I like that!
  2. When we are constantly “on” and we ignore proper self-care and mental breaks, it fuels stress and makes us less productive.

Stress Management ranks “slightly” because, like productivity techniques, stress management is managing the problem at the surface.  It doesn’t speak to the underying fears that make stress stick.

So what is below the surface with stress?

The Essence of Stress

Remember:  At its core, chronic stress is a triggering of our primal defense system. We perceive danger and react accordingly.  Take a deep breath and think about this with me.

The Spiral

The challenge is not that you have so much to do. The real issue is the fear that goes along with having too much to do.  The stress spiral self-talk goes something like this.

“I have so much to do.”

“I can’t possibly get it all done, so I might drop some balls.”

“Even the things I get done, won’t be my best — more dropped balls.”

“Dropped balls means the boss, client, team, won’t accept, appreciate, or admire my work.”

“I won’t get my bonus.”

“I won’t advance.”

“My peers will think I don’t have what it takes.”

“I will fail at my work.”

“My worst fears will be confirmed—I’m not capable; I’m an imposter.”

“I’ll end up doing some kind of demeaning work, I’ll end up a loser.”

The reason work-overload is stressful is that it ends ups threatening our core identity and security.

If this is true, surface level coping techniques will never provide enduring relief for stress.

RELATED: 4 Ways to Beat Anxiety at Work

Two Cures for Chronic Stress

1. The Practical Cure:  Get all the facts.

The practical cure for stress at work is to move from perceived threats to fact-checking. Here are some facts to check: 1) Who gets fired here and why?  2) Who excels here and why?  3) How does my boss define winning and how am I doing in his/her eyes?  Some bosses are not helpful, so it falls on the employee to keep track of projects, progress, and wins.  You can know how what you do impacts the team and the bottom line by learning to keep score for yourself.  4) How do others think I’m doing?  Fact-check this by asking for feedback regularly–“What was good about this piece of work, how could it have been better?  Knowing the facts decreases ambiguity, and ambiguity feeds stress.  As my mentor, Bobb Bhiel says, “once you know all the facts, decisions become easy.”

2. The Spiritual Cure:  Outsource your identity and security.

The spiritual cure for stress is finding a source of security and identity that does not solely depend on your work performance. A number of philosophers have pointed out that modern identity is fragile. Having broken free of the traditional identity, where tribe or family tell us what is essential in life and tell us how we are doing on that scale,  we have entered the age of the self. We determine what’s important for ourselves and we determine whether or not we are living up to our ideals.  Ultimately, everything that matters is on our shoulders. We have to prove ourselves and provide for ourselves. The weight of it all is crushing.

As a follower of Christ, I am convinced that our identity – our fundamental worth, is gifted to us by God. He made us.  And I believe our security in life, the promise that no matter what happens we’ll be ok, is also a gift. All things can work together for our good–even hard things and failures. (See Psalm 139 and Romans 8). While there are still stressful moments, no disaster scenario is actually the end of the world.

More on this spiritual cure for stress in our next post.

How About You?

  1. How have you found productivity and stress-management techniques and productivity improvements helpful? How have you found them wanting?
  2. What work facts, if known, could significantly reduce the amount of ambiguity stress you are facing?
  3. What do you make of the prospects of outsourcing your security and identity?

This post was originally featured in Patheos. 

Dr. Chip Roper is the President and Principal Consultant of The VOCA Center. VOCA’s vision is to make work better for individuals and teams by transforming secular jobs into sacred callings. Trained in Executive Coaching at Columbia University, Chip tackles the vocational challenge from 30 years of experience as a small businessman, a pastor, a career coach, and a business consultant.