© 1990, C.S. Clarke, Ph.D.
There are several stressors on the job that have been identified as those causing the most stress for the most people:
1. "Politics" in general and organizational politics in particular.
No matter where you work or what you do, you will always encounter politics on the job. Part of job politics consists of the manipulations by each individual to get others to behave as the manipulator desires. The other parts of job politics are the negotiations and cooperations with or resistance to the manipulator.
We all play politics. All the time. At work, at home and elsewhere. We all have hopes and wishes in relation to other people. We all try to make those hopes and wishes come true. That's political action.
Stress in job politics arises from:
▪ Trying to deny that politics exist.
▪ Trying to refuse to play.
▪ Being incompetent at the "game."
Here's what you can do about the stress of job politics:
▪ Look at politics a different way. Most people who deny the existence of politics or their participation in politics do so because they believe "politics" only describes a set of unpleasant and harmful manipulations. Untrue. Accept that politics are going on all the time in every relationship. Whatever you do for or with another person involves some kind of manipulation, even if it is so simple as straightforwardly asking for what you want. After all, in honestly asking, you are still trying to get what you want. Being honest and straightforward is a political strategy. If you believe in honesty as good and right, you believe everyone should be honest. You try to be honest and get others to be honest. It is a political manoeuvre to impose your beliefs about "right" and "should" on the people around you.
▪ Forget trying to refuse to play the game. Even refusing is part of playing. You are merely abandoning you ability to make an effective impact to other who may have a harmful impact indeed. Sidelining yourself just denies you the chance to have a positive influence on the events that affect your life.
▪ Play the game competently:
Know your own values well, live by them and refuse to let them be compromised. This will serve you well to guard against the harmful manipulations of others.
Observe and learn the strategies other use in the game so that you are aware of the tactics being used upon you. (Remember, some tactics used upon you will be pleasant and welcome, such as the kindness and caring that good and loving friends wish to impose upon you. Not a bad imposition, eh?)
Learn the formal skills and strategies of negotiation. To competently play the political game, you must be able to bargain with other players for what you want. Combined with an awareness of what the other players want and what are their strategies, negotiation skills will help you have the greatest possible impact in the outcomes. This is the way it works on the job, at home, in the community and in national politics.
In addition to the general run of job politics, there are politics specific to each organization. Just imagine for a moment the differences you would encounter between working for the IRS and working for a folk-crafts co-operative. Not only are the goals, work, environments and structures of those two organizations radically different, but so are the personalities of the people who would choose to work for each.
Although it is not intuitively obvious, the differences between organizations in the same field of endeavor are usually as great as the differences between the two in the example above. That is because corporate culture determines much of the political game played on the organizational level (as opposed to the individual, office or departmental levels). And corporate culture is imposed from the top down. So become a student of top management to understand what's happening, how to make predictions of what's to come and plan what you are going to do to protect and advance yourself.
2. Too much/too little independence in performance and decision-making.
Everyone has a comfort level of independent decision-making and action. Some want lots of supervision, immediate access to superiors to ask questions and many written guidelines and instructions. Some want to be left alone to get the job done the ways they believe to be fastest and best. Most fall somewhere in between. Obviously, no matter where your comfort zone lies, it must be balanced with your employer's or client's or customer's need for and right to control or influence. You need to decide how little and how much you can tolerate and try to get your organization to provide independence within those parameters. While you may not get your ideal, you can work toward something you can live with. If you can't tolerate a boss that hangs over your shoulder and literally watches you work, your work is going to suffer right along with your psychological health. And, no, you won't get used to it.
This issue is an important one because it directly affects your self-esteem. One of the four essential sources of self-esteem is having a sense of control and influence in your life. Your workday makes up so much of your life, that the level of your on-the-job independence is critical. That is true even if you prefer a lot of supervision, because that preference is merely indicative of your desire to have influence by doing things "right" and pleasing others.
3. Responsibilities without adequate power to fulfill them.
Learn the ways of influence without authority. See the book: Influence without Authority. (Allen R. Cohen and David L. Bradford, 1990, John Wiley & Sons.) It talks about ways to use the formal organization to work for you. Make sure you understand the informal organization. This is something you should know if you pay attention to and play the game of job politics.
For beginners who haven't heard of the informal organization, here's the quick word: every organization has a formal structure, a hierarchy. If you draw a diagram of it, it almost always takes a pyramidal shape with the most powerful person at the top of the pyramid, the least powerful workers at the bottom and the various people with power and authority sorting themselves out into levels in between. The power and authority held at any level is defined and assigned by the organization to the person holding the job title for that level. The informal organization, while made up of the same people, sorts them out by abilities, personal affiliations and political influence.
For example, in a rigidly-structured corporation the chief executive officer, whether that is the President or Chair, is defined as the most powerful person in the company. In the informal organization, however, it may be that the executive's secretary is in the most powerful position, because she (and usually it's a woman) controls a great deal of the executive's access to information as well as the access of other people to the executive.
In fact, the best and quickest way to find out about the "informal organization" in your organization is to ask a secretary about who's who and what's what. Then start making the right contacts and alliances. But, be careful about how you ask, no matter who you ask, because you don't want to give the impression you are seeking information that is confidential or trying to subvert the formal organization; you want it understood that you're trying to find your rightful place in the crowd.
4. Lack of adequate knowledge to fulfill assignments or make plans for self within the organizational structure.
Are you a mushroom? There is a standard joke about company policies of secrecy: They must think we're mushrooms, because they keep us in the dark and feed us manure. Keeping information from employees is a particularly insidious political ploy and a policy of keeping information so tight that employees have to make plans and decisions in a vacuum is just plain stupid. In organizations like these, employees generally find unofficial ways to get enough knowledge to function.
How to get knowledge: The informal organization will help with this, once you have established your place within it and formed your alliances. You'll learn who to ask about what, how to ask and when to ask. And you'll be kept informed without asking by the grapevine you're plugged into.
It also helps, as in everything else, if you have made friends in high places. As is suggested in Influence Without Authority, you need to have alliances within the formal organization that circumvent the roadblocks of hierarchy without actually "jumping over" established channels. Some of these informal relationships within the formal organization take years to develop, others seem to just happen overnight.
The annual report on your company will often give you information that, insanely enough, the organization won't give to the employees. If you hold stock in the company, you'll get it automatically, or if not, get one through a broker. Some companies treat information as secret from their employees that is available to the public through Dunn and Bradstreet Reports, has been published in the Wall Street Journal, or that others outside the company know by reason of some non-confidential relationship with the company. An example of this kind of organizational silliness is when the engraver they contract with for brass nameplates knows who is going to be promoted to vice-president three weeks before the announcement within the company. Anyone who knows how the company gets those nameplates supplied can call the engraver and inquire. Who thinks to urge such a supplier to confidentialty?
5. Lack of motivators for performance.
It's difficult to keep putting out required performance levels, much less excellence, when there are no incentives. Today's worker at every level is more intelligent, sophisticated and mobile than ever before. It is no longer enough to work hard just to keep a specific job. Everyone wants to feel appreciated for what they do, in addition to being paid.
You may make your own motivators by:
▪ Setting your own standards and finding your own rewards.
▪ Getting rewards from the informal organization.
▪ Getting rewards from outside the organization.
6. Too much or too little responsibility.
Too little responsibility results in frustrated ambition, disappointment and feeling unappreciated or devalued. To get more, prove yourself. That is, take on extra jobs and responsibilities within the organization or in outside organizations like community service clubs and political groups. Make sure you know who you need to impress and make sure they know about your extra work.
Too much responsibility results in anxiety, worry, fatigue, depression and eventually, immobilization. And that's just the hors d'ouevres: it would take too long to describe all the main course physical consequences. Negotiate with your employer for less responsibility. If you can't get less, quit. Too much responsibility will kill you. "Too much" means more than you can learn to live with. You may simply need to learn to handle more, i.e., your skills or attitudes may be inadequate.
7. Too much or too little work.
As with responsibility, you can have too much or too little work to do. If you have too much, you'll get tired, frustrated and depressed. If you have too little, you'll get bored, restless, frustrated and depressed.
To resolve the problem of too much work, try to get help from the formal organization (your boss, the "Human Resources" Department, etc.) first.
If there are political reasons to avoid asking for help or if your requests are turned down, go to the informal organization. That is, get others in your network of on-the-job friends and supporters to help you unofficially. If you have no network of friends and supporters on the job, kick yourself in the rear. Either you've been remiss in developing these very important relationships or you are in a place where they aren't available and should get out.
If you have too little work, do something to prove yourself to the boss, so she'll give you better and more challenging assignments. Make more work for yourself, perhaps by offering to help ease the load of an over-worked associate or other member of your on-the job network of friends. Or, as suggested for too little responsibility, make some work elsewhere, like community service that shows skills and abilities that apply to job, and make sure the right people on the job find out about it.
8. Interruptions and conflicting demands.
Most interruptions are from people who can be retrained to stop interrupting you at inappropriate times:
▪ Screen calls and visitors.
▪ Don't answer phone or door.
▪ Tell people you can't talk right now.
▪ Tell people you can talk with them for a specific period of time; then stop when the time is up.
▪ Get someone else to do it.
▪ Refuse the task.
▪ Allot limited time periods.
9. Role conflict.
There is first the problem of wearing too many hats. In many small and medium sized organizations, one person often must perform the functions of two or more different jobs. For example, in one organization, the comptroller (a Vice-Presidential level position) managed all the accounting and payroll functions, the print shop and the cleaning and building maintenance shop. Imagine what happened when, on April 10 (remember what April 15 is?) the main printing press broke down and on April 12 the union representing the cleaning and maintenance employees had scheduled a city-wide work slow-down protest.
The next most common is in area of work friendships where friends have different and unequal status. Many kinds of jealousies and resentments arise from this circumstance, and if one friend works for another, problems with the work product can result from unrealistic desires to give or receive preferential treatment and dissappointments in those desires. Also, when friends do receive preferential treatment, other workers are jealous and resentful and may sabotage the work, the relationships or the positions of those involved.
Working women have more role conflicts than men because of the variety of job interference with their roles as wives and mothers. It is a rare mother that feels no guilt at leaving a small child with a sitter or in a pre-school. But women's role conflicts at work is a complex subject, well-researched and discussed in great detail in popular and professional literature. It is far beyond the scope of this article, though I cannot pass it by without acknowledgement. Role Conflict requires a variety of techniques in its resolution and often takes a great deal of time. It deserves an article all its own.
10. Managing time on the job:
In addition to interruptions, conflicting demands and workload, all of which are imposed from the outside, there is the problem of personal organization and self-discipline. It is a rare person who can manage all this without a minimum of a to-do list and some sort of calendar, time schedule or appointment schedule. If you need help with time management see: Time Management Memo -- Putting Out Fires.