It’s important for professionals in any field to feel capable, confident and fulfilled at work and that they are valued and appreciated for what they do. Each of these factors helps give a sense of coping well at work. Coping also refers to managing the stressors and demands associated with your role – be they technical, process-related or social such as interpersonal relationships. Also, coping well involves being able to devote enough of yourself to your work – that is, making sure that work receives enough attention in your personal work-life balance equation.
It can all be easier said than done. So many factors, work-related and personal, can combine to make working life too stressful. There are times when even the most competent, experienced professional can find themselves feeling they are not tracking at all well – stress has turned into distress and a sense of being under control has morphed into a sinking feeling that they are not coping.
It’s important to be alert for the warning signs and to know how to get help if you ever find yourself in such a situation.
Stress vs distress
There are stressful elements to all professional roles – meeting demanding deadlines, maintaining high standards and dealing with challenging interpersonal relationships are just a few of them. When you’re coping well, it’s usual to see such challenges as positive stress – you feel stimulated by the challenges and satisfied when you’ve dealt with them.
In contrast, negative stress or ‘distress’ occurs when demands seem to be beyond your coping abilities. Distress at work can be caused by many factors such as:
- job insecurity;
- unresolved interpersonal conflicts;
- insufficient authority to carry out your responsibilities;
- increased workload;
- lack of the training necessary to do what you are expected to do;
- unproductive meetings that leave you short of time; and
- an unsupportive manager.
As well, factors outside of work can lead to and/or exacerbate feelings of distress at work; for example; fatigue, difficulties at home and the use of drugs or alcohol to cope.
Distress can leave you feeling anxious, concerned or downright depressed. It feels unpleasant and can significantly impinge on your performance. It’s important to be alert to signs that you are suffering from excessive workplace stress or distress and to be proactive in dealing with it.
The first step towards dealing with feelings that you are not coping as well as you should at work is to identify the warning signs. These are likely to include physical and psychological indicators as well as job-related ones. It helps to write yourself a list of the factors that are concerning you because that helps you with the next step which is to ask for help. The following are examples of what might appear on your personal list:
Physical and psychological factors
The physical and psychological factors to look out for as possible signs that you are not coping well at work include:
- difficulty concentrating;
- feeling anxious, irritable or depressed;
- catastrophic thinking (such as “I’m a complete failure”);
- sleep problems;
- negativity or cynicism;
- low morale;
- frustration; and
The job-related factors to see as warning signs that you may not be coping well include:
- feeling generally unable to achieve what is expected;
- having a sense that your workload is unmanageable;
- taking days off when you are not sick;
- going to work but not being productive;
- feeling undervalued by colleagues or your manager;
- worrying that work is damaging personal relationships; and
- avoiding social interactions that are part of your job responsibilities such as team meetings.
In reading through these examples, compiling your own list and thinking about whether or not you need to seek help, remember that any of these factors can be present for a period time in a professional working life. Dealing with it and feeling OK when you have done so probably means you are coping well. But when one or more of the factors linger and you have a sense you are not coping well it’s time to get some help.
Getting help when you are not coping well at work can begin when somebody you trust asks “Are you ok?” and you choose to tell them that you are not. And it can be very helpful when that person has the skill to help you articulate what is bothering you and what to do about it. Some managers would see this as part of their role.
But there are other ways to get the help you need without waiting for somebody else to take the initiative.
1. Talk to a good listener
A good starting place for dealing with a sense that you are not coping well at work is to talk to someone who’ll listen. This is not the same as looking for someone who give you an immediate solution; rather it is about having someone who will help you articulate what is bothering you, particularly how you are physically and emotionally affected. Articulating your concerns, including responding to questions that help you delve further into what is going on for you can produce valuable new insights into what you need to do to deal with your concerns. The article Credulous Listening describes the sort of skills you are looking for in your listener.
Often professionals feel more comfortable speaking to somebody outside their workplace – a trained counsellor, a psychologist or a suitably skilled professional mentor. Professionals in each of these are areas are highly-skilled in active listening. Sometimes it’s as simple as calling on a friend you can rely on to listen to your concerns and help you think them through.
Talking things through can be particularly helpful when you are facing personal, non-work related issues that impinge on your performance at work. A confidential chat can help you get clear in your own mind the extent to which you need help at work and how much help you need outside the workplace. Family problems, health concerns and personal lifestyle can all adversely affect your capacity to cope at work. Talking it through can help you decide what, if anything, you need to tackle independently of any help you seek at work.
2. Meet with your manager
When you are clear in your own mind about the factors contributing to your distress at work and know that they are factors your manager can help address, then she or he might be the first place you go for help. Competing priorities, unmanageable workload or a need for particular training are just examples of the factors that a manager can address.
If you are unsure of your manager’s capacity to respect your need for support, it might be helpful to talk it though with someone you trust first. It’s usually helpful to be well-prepared to express your concerns as a request for support and to avoid coming across as critical of others, including your manager.
For example, a young graduate with just a couple of years’ experience found herself feeling overwhelmed by the dynamics of a team she had recently been asked to join. Her new colleagues were all more experienced and she found herself feeling increasingly stressed about her relative inexperience and what was expected of her in this new role. She began to notice signs that she was not coping well. A preliminary chat with an internal HR professional prompted her to think about what sort of support would help her return to her normal level of confidence. This helped her prepare to meet with her team leader for a constructive discussion about mentoring and other assistance from HR.
3. Make use of available resources
Life as a professional is demanding and stressful. Whist it is part of management’s role to attend to factors that put unreasonable demands on staff, there are other sources of support that can help with, and complement, speaking with your manager. In some situations, calling on help from elsewhere can be more appropriate.
If your employer has an in-house HR department, you can ask for a confidential meeting to discuss your concerns with a competent HR professional. This should be someone who can help you think about the full range of factors contributing to your sense of not coping at work. And if necessary they should be able to help you prepare to take action.
In addition, many larger organisations have an externally provided Employee Assistance Program (EAP). This is a confidential service, available to all employees, to help with proactive and preventive measures for identifying and resolving work and personal problems that adversely affect staff members’ performance and wellbeing. In some cases, those services are also available for family members of the employee.
You should remember that legal expertise and workplace relations advice are available to you as a member of Professionals Australia.
Finally it’s worth knowing that anyone across Australia experiencing a personal crisis or thinking about suicide can contact Lifeline (131114) where trained volunteers are ready to listen as well as provide support and referrals. And, beyondblue (www.beyondblue.com.au) provides a wealth of information and advice for anybody dealing with anxiety, depression and related conditions.
Looking for more ideas?
For members with an interest in further reading about topics covered in this article, the following articles are available on the Professionals Australia website.
About the author
Dr Janet Fitzell, a director of FourLeaf Consulting Pty Ltd (www.fourleaf.com.au), is an independent organisational consultant and facilitator, specialising in organisational and professional development.
18 May 2015