Hard economic times drive people crazy with on-the-job stress


Liz Jones had been sleeping fitfully. She suffered headaches and a tightness in her shoulders. Then one morning as she drove to work, her lungs suddenly became congested, her breathing shallow and labored. She knew the cause -- she was working too hard. She also knew it was time to get help.

In the past, therapists viewed complaints of job stress as a cover for other emotional problems -- something easier to talk about than home-life worries or childhood hurts. But in the last year or so, an increasing number of people have sought counseling claiming job stress -- and meaning it.

Clearly the ailing economy weighs heavily on the lives of the nation's 8.89 million unemployed. But those lucky enough to escape layoffs are facing a different set of recession-related problems. And a lot of them don't feel lucky at all.

Workers are overburdened by the responsibilities of colleagues who were forced out. They're afraid to complain. They're scared they might be next to get the ax.

Ms. Jones, 29, a manager at a major Philadelphia department store, feels pushed to be perfect out of fear she'll be fired and thrown into a near-hopeless job market. "You find you're pushing yourself very, very hard," she says. "Pushing to work extra hours and pushing to make that bottom line. I'm always trying to do the best I can to keep my bosses satisfied. And it's always hanging over your head that you can be replaced."

Workers often seek help through employee assistance programs and private psychologists. At the Agoraphobia and Anxiety Treatment Center in suburban Philadelphia, Ms. Jones learned deep breathing and other exercises to control her anxiety.

The problem, according to therapist Linda Welsh, is that "there's rTC a lot of truth to people's insecure feelings that they may not have options."

Besides patients feeling pushed and overscrutinized by bosses who also are pushed to produce, therapists are hearing complaints from people trapped in jobs they don't like. -- they can't take a chance on today's job market or a spouse suddenly is unemployed. Even people in good jobs are becoming disillusioned because their financially strapped employers can't offer enough money or opportunities for growth and creativity.

Ms. Welsh says she sees a lot of health-care professionals -- doctors drowning in government paperwork, nurses who feel they have responsibility but no power. Lawyers, Ms. Welsh says, feel unrecognized for their contribution and worry that they're viewed as parasites but, like the health-care professionals, they cannot justify walking away from lucrative careers. And social workers come in suffering from overwork and frustration because they can't solve problems caused by political moves and economic problems.

Ms. Welsh tries to get patients to deal with the present, she says, "and stop catastrophizing about what will happen." She also urges them to plan more leisure activities and get more involved with other aspects of their lives and their families.

Napoleon Vaughn, a psychologist based in West Philadelphia, sees a lot of patients who are underemployed -- unable to find the job they want but taking what comes along.

Sometimes severe economic pressures can become crippling, completely taking over a patient's day-to-day life, says Mr. Vaughn.

And stress-induced illnesses are considered an important cause of absenteeism, according to Elizabeth McCardell, director of the Counseling Program at Pennsylvania Hospital.

"We try to get people to visualize what they would like to do [on their job] and let them talk it out in a protected environment, so they can get rid of their negative energy and go on," she says. "There's always an alternative way to view things. If layoffs are announced just before Christmas, one way to look at it is that at least these prevented you from overspending and then finding out you might be laid off.

"We also try to get people to see the absurdity of some of their worries. It's true employers are less willing to carry a worker who's not doing his share. But people do a lot of needless worrying about other people's behavior.

It also helps to get people to focus on things they can control. But that's harder to do these days, according to McCardell, "because what they control is very little."

"Research on job satisfaction shows that people need to feel they have control and decision-making power. We can't necessarily give them that, but we can point out how they can prioritize their time away from work that they actually control. We encourage people to plan play time, which is very important."

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad