Midlife House Cleaning–Conquer Stress on the Job and in Daily Living

Workplace stress is a major problem as North Americans and Europeans struggle through weak economic recoveries. Are you stressed out at mid-career yet hesitant to quit your job? Many of us are caught between a rock and a hard place. In the US, “official” unemployment is 8.1% but true unemployment is closer to 19% if you count those who simply have quit looking for work. In fact, 56% of all Americans laid off from January, 2009 through December, 2011 are still without a job and 1/3 of those rehired took 20% or greater pay cuts. I can understand why you don’t want to quit.

There is another side to the story: you simply can’t allow stress to rob you of the joy of living, lead to a stoke or cause a heart attack. At middle age, you deserve better! Your youthful apprentice days should be over; you’ve earned the right to enjoy the workday and come home alert and refreshed each evening. Let’s face it: your life overall is not going to improve until you eliminate stress from your workday! 

Let’s examine your stress on the job. You can’t sleep at night worrying about the day ahead. You hate Monday mornings! What’s the root of your problem? There are three general categories of stress:

  1. Circumstances beyond your control. You may not like the decision to relocate your office from sunny South Florida to Fairbanks, Alaska but unless you quit, you’ll simply have to move.
  2. Circumstances over which you have partial control. Examples are your relationship with the immediate boss, prioritizing tasks and organizing your workday.
  3. Circumstances over which you have full control. Examples: setting long-range career goals, volunteering for assignments, helping out fellow employees, developing and promoting your talents and skills..

It is foolish to stress out over circumstances you can’t control; make contingency plans for a potential negative outcome but then concentrate on the other two. Your next challenge is to search for workplace stress points. Begin by asking yourself these questions:

  • “What’s the true source of my stress: is it the work environment or more my reaction to it?”
  • “Am I stressed out because I have too much to do and too little time to do it?” 
  • “Am I stressed out because I don’t have enough to do?” (Here’s an irony: on the two most stressful jobs I ever had, I was given few meaningful assignments; I often felt guilty and had to scramble to look busy.)
  • “Am I stuck in the same old routine with no new challenges or rewards, little chance to shine and lack of meaningful connection to my company’s bottom line?”
  • “Am I stressed out meeting the technical requirements of my job? Would additional training help?”
  • “Why did I take this job? Did I understand what I was getting into? If I was happy at first but am miserable now, what has changed?”
  • “Am I willing to sacrifice to reduce my stress? Will I consider a lateral transfer or even a demotion?”
  • “Have I communicated my concerns to my boss and proposed possible solutions?”
  • “Are my colleagues at work as stressed out as I am? If not, why are they better able to adapt?”
  • “How well do I get along with my boss and my colleagues at work? During the workday, am I a positive sparkplug or a perpetual whiner?”
  • “Are problems outside of work the real source of my stress (e.g., household spending beyond our means, a rocky marriage, defiant teens)?”
  • “Is my workday stress likely temporary or permanent? Can I see a light at the end of the tunnel?”
  • Have I looked at the current situation through my boss’s eyes? Do I understand my boss’s point of reference?  

Once you have answered each of these questions, you can weigh the options for quiting your job. It is never worth hanging in there if stress might seriously damage your health, marriage, sanity or peace of mind. Here are some pros and cons:

  • Do you have clearly-defined career goals and a solid shot at meeting them with your present employer? Do you foresee a promising future if you can tough it out?
  • Do you admire what your present employer does and how you contribute? Are you proud to tell friends and neighbors who you work for and what you do for a living?
  • Will your employer help you pay for continuing education or vocational  training needed to advance your career and alleviate your current stressful situation?
  • If you like what you do for a living, are there other potential employers out there who could offer similar career opportunities without the stress?

Before giving notice, talk to your boss or a Human Resources representative about the possibility of a lateral transfer, a change in responsibilities or participation in a multi-function task force to broaden the scope of your horizons and increase your exposure to other functions. Once you decide to leave, never quit in haste–you may be sorry later! First, scope out a detailed exit plan, stick you toe in the water, develop contacts and volunteer for activities which will increase your skills and marketability for a new position.

Let’s look at the bright side. Let’s say that you have been offered a new job but you’re concerned that stress may be as bad or worse than your prior position. Are there effective steps to gage, avoid or manage stress before you accept that new position? Are there early warning signs that tell you to turn the job offer down? Here are a few helpful tips:

  • Ask yourself, “Will I be assigned tasks and functions that I’m good at and like to perform? Can I picture myself content in this position over the next several years?”
  • Have a clear career-progression plan in mind: “What will this job do for me, what will I bring to the job and where might it lead?”
  • Do you truly admire this potental employer? Do you understand and support their strategic objectives? Can you expect to play a meaninful role in their accomplishment? 
  • Are you 100% confident you can provide the qualifications you promised in job interviews and on your resume and fulfill written job desription demands?
  • Never take a job where your future boss and co-workers appear stressed-out, disengaged or highly negative. Chances are, you’ll wind up unhappy also.
  • On that final job interview, always ask for the chance to meet and speak with those you will be working with. Most potential employers will be impressed by your desire to meet with and introduce yourself to the team.

Let’s assume for the present you choose to remain with your present employer. Here are some suggestions to help make your workday not only tolerable but also fulfilling and fun:

  • Learn and practice six simple steps to a stress-free environment: prioritization of tasks, management of time and energy, willing acceptance of personal responsibility along with holding others accountable to assist, improved performance management  (routine coaching and constructive criticism) and communication up, down and accross functional lines.
  • It is better always to be helpful than always to be right.  
  • As a boss, explain to subordinates what is needed but never tell  them precisely how to do the job.

If you’re like most of us, stress at midlife is not entirely job related. Here are four simple stress-reduction techniques you can try at home:

  • With spouse and children, be loving and helpful rather than always attempting to prove your point.
  • Routinely seek to place yourself in your spouse’s shoes. Why does your spouse so often view things differently from you?
  • With your teenagers, respect their current age and–subject to firm basic groundrules– grant them independence and responsibility. Don’t continue to treat your teens as small children.
  • With teens, delegate tasks and hold them accountable. Make your teenagers earn their privileges.  Don’t micro-manage–it never works.

Stress-reduction techniques work on volunteer projects as well. As a project leader, condition yourself to look each volunteer in the eye, ask for help, pass out assignments, set target completion dates, delegate and hold others accountable. You can’t fire or withhold compensation from a volunteer but the committee as a whole will help you exert social pressure. Routine progress reviews are essential. Absolutely refuse to be the only team member to accept responsibility. Don’t be left holding the bag. It’s great to volunteer but you who needs the added stress of a do-nothing committee?   

At work, at home, at church or in any social setting, soft people skills can help to reduce stress both for you and for those around you. No matter how smart or technically skilled you are, you will never be genuinely happy nor go very far without them.  Here are some techniques to help improve your people skills:

  1. Refuse to second the negative comments of others.
  2. In every difficult circumstance, emphasize possibilities not roadblocks.
  3. Pay frequent sincere compliments to co-workers, family members and those around you. When they are doing a good job, tell them so!
  4. Never gossip or complain behind another person’s back.
  5. Offer to help out, even when not asked–but never spread yourself too thin.

Want some additional ideas on midlife stress reduction? Tune in to my podcast, “Get Rid of Mid-Career Job Stress and Stress in General” debuting on September 24, 2012 on my weekly inspirational program “Middle Age Can Be Your Best Age” on WebTalkRadio.netMy guest is Bob Kantor noted author, leadership development coach and expert on workplace stress reduction.

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