A couple of weeks ago I met a British Airlines flight attendant while we were riding stationary bikes at the gym in the hotel where we were both staying. She had arrived from London about six o'clock the night before and told me she would be leaving on an 11-hour flight back to London later that same day. While she was telling me this, I couldn't help but think of the studies I had recently seen about the negative effects of short layovers on the brain and memory in flight attendants.
Everyone copes with stress differently, so, when I asked if her job was stressful, I wasn't too surprised when she told me she wasn't fazed by the quick turnarounds at all. "My last job as a school teacher," she explained, "was way more stressful than this job." This positive attitude reminded me that a lot of the stress we experience on the job is psychological and involves negative thinking, worry and over-reacting to criticism. As the result, job stress is often best dealt with by using psychological techniques like maintaining a positive perspective. She was quick to let go of the stress in her current career by highlighting the positive differences between her current job and her former job.
The whole notion that we perceive our situation as improving has been studied in lab rats and verified as a valid way to help reduce stress. While we sat on our stationary bikes the flight attendant told me exactly what the differences were between her old job and her new job.
What's stressful about being a school teacher:
Not being allowed to deviate from the curriculum (She didn't like having to teach the same thing day in and day out, year after year without being able to add in her own ideas)
What was stressful about being a flight attendant:
Crazy schedule (24 hour turnarounds)
When the entertainment system doesn't work*
Difficult crew members
*She said she wasn't the least bit technical and when the entertainment system breaks down, she does not have the skills to fix it. Now if you ask me, that's a management problem. They should give her the training in how to fix the entertainment system, or at least make sure there is at least one person on board every plane who can.
The big point that she emphasized between the first job and second job, was that all her stressors on the second list (except for the crazy schedule) would ALWAYS go away at the end of each flight. Each plane had a different captain, and a different crew, and of course the difficult passengers left the plane and they didn't come back. Even the entertainment systems would be checked and if need be, fixed after each flight. But as she made great pains to point out, all the stressors on the first list, stayed with her, day in and day out.
Her perspective on this major improvement allowed her to really appreciate being a flight attendant. Part of what made her new job easier was 1. She had the necessary skills to do it. (I could tell she had good people skills) 2. She had the perspective of what it was like working at a job you don't like.
One flight attendant I spoke to on the plane ride home from San Diego confirmed what the first attendant had said; (coincidentally , THEY HAD BOTH BEEN SCHOOL TEACHERS). The second flight attendant said I LOVE this job. I would do this job for no pay. I like people and get to hang out with new and interesting people every day. (Obviously someone who was terrified of flying or who was painfully shy probably wouldn't feel the same way.) And that's why it's hard to predict what job is going to be stressful and what job isn't. It depends on the person in the job.
For a shy retiring type, working in the stacks at a library just might be perfect. But for the gregarious person, who wants to be with people and likes going places, the librarian's job would be just as stressful to her as the flight attendant's job would be for the librarian.
There's no doubt that we all have a stress profile, and your job has a stress profile too (whether that means lots of deadlines, working with lots of people, endless meetings, squabbles with coworkers, or something quite the opposite) and the two need to match up to some extent. (How resilient are you? Can you handle the stress associated with the job?) The commonly used expression "If you can't handle the heat, get out of the kitchen," explains how this concept works to a tee. Obviously a chef or a short-order cook who isn't very adept at handling stress, probably needs to think about finding a different career.
I actually met a former chef who spoke at a gathering of ISMA (The International Stress Management Association) in Chicago several years ago. He initially loved his job, but he didn't like all the stress. Over the ten years he was a chef, he started developing symptoms of M.S. As the restaurant got more and more popular, his symptoms got worse and worse. It was getting to the point where it was difficult for him to walk and to stand for long periods of time. When he spilled a 10 gallon pot of boiling water all over himself, he knew it was time to quit. He eventually wound up in a wheel chair completely unable to walk.
That's when he discovered stress management. He found a job a with a completely different stress profile and by adding in a low fat diet, meditation and other forms of stress management completely recovered his ability to walk. I remember going out on the town with him after his presentation, he walked so well, I completely forgot he had MS. It was remarkable.
So how do we decide how much job stress is the right amount of stress for us? And how can we tell when some stress is too much? How do we know what careers we're well adapted for and which ones we aren't?
Take a look at the graph to the right. This graph is known as the Yerkes-Dodson, Optimal Performance Curve. It shows that as your levels of stress or arousal increase, your productivity increases also, but only to a certain point. When you have too little stress, your job is boring, not challenging enough. When you have too much stress, your job is overwhelming and unpleasant and eventually leads to burnout and or illness. (The chef in the above at example had reached the right hand side of the curve.)
But you are not looking for a job with zero stress, either. That would be dreary and dull, and possibly even mind-numbing. What you want to have a job with some stress in it. The right amount of stress for you. That's what makes your job stimulating, fun, and even exciting sometimes.
Some experts estimate that job stress is the number one source of stress in the US and that a difficult boss tops the list of things (see list below) that are stressful on the job. My father worked for General Electric for 30 years, and I remember my mother announcing that we all had to be extra patient with him one year because he was dealing with a new and difficult boss.
This was a heady time for GE (way before Jack Welch) when the company was growing in leaps and bounds and there was never ANY threat of layoffs. Basically my father's job was set for life. And yet his difficult boss affected our whole family. I remember how we all sighed with relief when my father's original boss, who he liked, got reassigned back to my father's department. And when that good boss ultimately retired a few years later, my father, facing another new and difficult boss or early retirement, chose the latter.
Here's the question that every corporation in America needs to face: Is job stress a problem for the worker to solve or a problem for the company to solve? In Europe and other countries the answer is absolutely clear. It's the responsibility of the company to solve. In America, the general consensus is it's the worker's problem to solve. By the way, a year or two before my father retired, GE observed its one hundredth anniversary. To celebrate the occasion they decided to honor 100 employees who had made outstanding contributions to the company during the course of their careers. My father was one of those 100 employees. And yet, only a year or two later, because job stress was my father's problem to solve, GE lost one of its top 100 employees to early retirement.
Don't underestimate the destructive power of job stress. And when you bring this stress home to your family, it can be doubly destructive.