Top 5 myths about workplace stress

Myths of stress

Here’s some typical thinking on workplace stress:

  • Mike is getting stressed at work, but that’s just natural these days.
  • In fact, if Mike isn’t stressed, it probably means that he’s not really crucial to the organization.
  • The solution is to let Mike work less and with fewer responsibilities for a while until he recovers.
  • Or to let Mike work more for a while until he’s no longer falling behind and getting stressed over that.
  • And of course to send him on a stress management course to teach him all about stress.

Wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

Yes, workplace stress is a serious problem. Yes, the cost to people, businesses and society is enormous. Yes we must do something about it.

But some myths exist around stress that mean, that most of what we do about it isn’t working. Often, it even makes things worse.

Here are the top 5 myths about workplace stress.

Myth #1: Stress is normal, it means you’re important and it’s even good because it pushes you to perform

Some people seem to think that if you’re not too busy, you’re not really crucial to the organization. These people revel in having full schedules, long working hours and too much work.

But stress does not mean you matter. It either means that somethings wrong at work or that you’re not doing a good enough job of matching your tasks to your time. Worse, it also means that you get less work done, because stressed people are less efficient, worse communicators and worse at making good decisions.

To accept stress as a normal condition of work is bad for people and bad for business!

Myth #2: Stress is caused by working too much

But then why do some people work 80 hours a week and feel great, while some people work 30 and get serious stress?

Here’s why: Stress has nothing to do with the number of hours you work, and everything to do with how you feel during those hours.

If you work 100 hours a week feeling great, having fun and taking pride in what you do, you won’t be stressed. If you work 30 hours a week feeling inadequate, bullied or unappreciated you will be stressed.

Myth #3: Stress is cured by working less

Most workplaces react to stress by reducing employees’ workloads, responsibilities or working hours and in serious cases by giving people long sick leaves. According to Danish medical researcher Bo Netterstrøm who has studied workplace stress for 30 years, this is a mistake.

People hit by stress need to increase their capacity and confidence at work, and while time off from work can be necessary to treat the immediate symtoms of stress, a long absence from the workplace does exactly the opposite. When people return to the workplace, they’re even more vulnerable than before. Worse, some never return to work at all.

Also, reducing work or leaving work remporarily doesn’t fix any underlying problems. When employees return to work or to “normal” work conditions, nothing has changed and the stress returns quickly.

Myth #4: Stress is cured by working more

“Yes, I’m a little stressed at work right now because we’re falling behind. If I work really hard for a while I’ll catch up and it will go away.”

No it won’t. For two reasons:

  1. Workplace stress does not come from falling behind at work. It comes from how you feel about falling behind.
  2. In most businesses, people will always be behind. There is simply too much work and finishing all your tasks simply means getting assigned more work.

A temporary push to reduce a pile of work or meet a deadline is fine. But all too often that temporary push becomes the new standard.

So the solution to stress is not to work harder to catch up because in most workplaces this is impossible. The solution is to feel good about the work you finish and not to get stressed about the work you don’t finish. It’s not that you should stop caring, it’s just that you should remember that being stressed makes you less productive, which means you get less work done and become more stressed. That’s a vicious circle right there and we need to break it.

Myth #5: Stress is cured by focusing on stress

I’ve seen a lot of the literature and training about workplace stress, and the typical content is:

  • What is stress
  • Symptoms of stress
  • Health implications of stress
  • How to fight stress

This is often presented by a stress consultant. Here in Denmark that consultant may even come from the rather unfortunately named Center for Stress (shouldn’t that be against stress?)

A recent study showed that people who return from anti-stress training felt more stressed than people who didn’t attend. No wonder, because focusing on stress is not the way to remove it – it’s a great way to create more stress. Instead, you must focus on what gives you peace and energy. Here’s a great way to do that every day at work.

The truth on stress

Repeat after me: Work does not give you stress. Feeling bad about work gives you stress.

This means thant changing your workhours, your responsibilities, your priorities or your work environment is meaningless, unless it also changes the way you feel at work.

Those stress management courses will not do the trick either, unless they can achieve just that.

If you’re stressed, you must take charge and make whatever changes are necessary to go from feeling anxious, inadequate or drained at work to feeling appreciated, proud and energetic.

Which will not only remove workplace stress, but will also make you more efficient, creative, successful and happy at work.

Additional reading

Happy Hour is 9 to 5Want to know more about reducing workplace stress? It’s in my brand new book Happy Hour is 9 to 5: How to Love Your Job, Love Your Life and Kick Butt at work.

“It’s very, very good. It’s incredibly well-written.”
David Maister

Read it free online or buy it on paper or pdf.

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35 thoughts on “Top 5 myths about workplace stress”

  1. To my favorite CHO… from the essay “The Cathedral and the Bazaar”
    http://www.catb.org/esr/writings/cathedral-bazaar/cathedral-bazaar/ar01s12.html

    Human beings generally take pleasure in a task when it falls in a sort of optimal-challenge zone; not so easy as to be boring, not too hard to achieve. A happy programmer is one who is neither underutilized nor weighed down with ill-formulated goals and stressful process friction. Enjoyment predicts efficiency.

    Relating to your own work process with fear and loathing (even in the displaced, ironic way suggested by hanging up Dilbert cartoons) should therefore be regarded in itself as a sign that the process has failed. Joy, humor, and playfulness are indeed assets; it was not mainly for the alliteration that I wrote of “happy hordes” above, and it is no mere joke that the Linux mascot is a cuddly, neotenous penguin.

    It may well turn out that one of the most important effects of open source’s success will be to teach us that play is the most economically efficient mode of creative work.

    I know that this is OLD… but I just found it today :(

  2. Thanks Alexander – super article! You really hit the bullseye – it’s how we relate to what is causing us our suffering. Too often I try to change the thing I think is causing me the pain. But its how I am relating to the pain that is causing much of my suffering.

    And the key in making any changes is to work at changing that relationship.

    I see that with headaches and other aches & pains I get – when I get worked up that something is wrong and I shouldnt be uncomfortable, the suffering really ramps up. When I can relax around it, even accept it, the pain often diminishes.

  3. Alfredo: Thanks for the quote and the link – that’s spot-on!

    Trine-Maria: Exactly. Now you don’t have to worry any more what’s wrong with you since you don’t get stressed :o)

    Dave: That’s interesting – I ‘ve noticed the exact same thing in myself. I heard someone say once that “What you resist, persists”.

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  6. I when I work on projects I love I feel less stress. When I work on projects I am “concerned” with I feel high stress. Thanks for helping me work that out.

  7. Great article, I am feeling better already!

    I was under the impression that having less responsibilities will make you feel less stressed – guess I was wrong

  8. Interesting! I really enjoyed this particular post!… Stress is everywhere, and it seems so commonplace. Yet, if I stop and really think about it, different individuals have different ways of coping with these stress. There’s drinking, smoking, working out, eating, and so many other things….
    Stress is definitely not about working too much, but it seems to be more a matter of how we cope with things that are constantly being thrown in our face….

    But to be honest, I truly enjoy what I”m doing right now, what I’m studying, and where I am in my life..but that doesn’t mean that I don’t get stressed. I get stressed almost every day, due to various obligations… Sure, I’ll probably be more stressed if I was doing something I didn’t want to do, but honestly, everyone has stress. Its all a matter of how we handle our stress and how we cope with it…. Its also a matter of how well we keep it under control. We can choose to “look stressed” by going to work half-dressed with unbrushed hair, or we can choose to “look presentable” by taking some time to do so. And of course, outsiders will think that the person that “looks presentable” has less stress, but its all so subjective.

  9. This is a great article! I’ve done some writing on “The Myth of the Stressful Environment,” which can be accessed here: http://EzineArticles.com/?The-Myth-of-the-Stressful-Environment&id=5666183.

    Many people talk about stress as if it is something that is “happening to them,” or of which they are a passive recipient/victim. You correctly point out that “stressors” are in the eye of the beholder. I’m looking forward to reading your book.

    Cheers,

    Tom Patterson – Executive Coach – Seattle, Washington

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