Coping with Workplace Stress

Male-specific problems when dealing with workplace stress.

4 min read

As a magazine editor, Chris Charla is faced every day with multiple deadlines, meetings, and all the other demands of putting out a quality product -- demands which in his case led to some destructive coping mechanisms.

"I used to take my wrist rest and slam it against the keyboard, or take my phone and slam it down on the receiver a few times," recalls Charla, a 28-year-old San Franciscan. "But I've tried to calm down since then. I still want to smash things, but what I do now is tell myself not to slam anything and instead to take a walk."

Charla can talk himself through times when emotions run high. What he can't do, though, is talk with others. "If I go to my supervisor," he says, "not only is it an admission that I screwed up my time management, but it's an admission that I can't do my job."

Though he's made progress, Charla's mindset is typical of men in the workplace -- one that makes handling stress difficult, and admitting to it taboo.

Workplace stress has extreme consequences in Japan, where the suicide rate among men has risen over the last 15 years. According to the Japanese government's Statistics Bureau, the highest suicide rate occurs in men from 35 to 44 years old, making it the 13th most common cause of death for men. (It's 21st for women). Take the triple suicide in March 1998, when three Japanese men -- all heads of car part companies -- took their lives on the same night. They reason they gave? Poor company finances.

In the United States, men's suicide rates have actually declined over the past few years. But the suicide rate for men is still nearly four times higher than for women, according to 1997 data from the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. (In the United States, the age group with the highest rate is from 75 to 85 years old.)

Much of the problem, says Glenn E. Good, PhD, stems from the way men's identities are so closely tied to work. "If you ask a man who he is, the first thing he says is his work -- I'm an executive, I'm a doctor, I'm a housebuilder," says Good, who is an associate professor of educational and counseling psychology at the University of Missouri, Columbia.

In Japan, says Good, that role is even more profoundly defined. Women are expected to serve men, and since a woman's role is in the home and with the family, the man's role -- and his self-esteem -- is tied nearly exclusively to work. And in Japan, says Good, showing emotion is practically forbidden.

Suppressing feelings and internalizing stress are learned, male traits, says Good -- traits that keep men from telling their bosses that they're feeling overburdened or need help. "On some inner level, it comes down to: If I can't tough it out, then I'm not much of man."

Experts agree that the most important thing men can do to work through stress is to learn to communicate -- even if it means rethinking traditional male roles. This means trying to openly resolve conflicts at work, as well as seeking outside support from counselors, support groups or co-workers.

Hope Hills, PhD, is president of Circle Consulting Group in Wisconsin, a company that specializes in team- and leadership-building. "When men start admitting their insecurity," says Hills, "especially to their colleagues, there can be a real change in their level of stress and comfort with themselves."

One of the simpler things that men can do to control stress is relaxation training -- such as meditation, biofeedback, or yoga -- for 15 to 20 minutes during the work day. Exercise also plays a role, making the body stronger and more able to withstand stress.

But in the end, what's also important is for men to stop expecting too much of themselves. "I think a lot of men have that kind of pressure on themselves that nothing they ever do is good enough," says Hills. But if men can become aware of the link between this mindset and stress, they can nip it in the bud.

Terry A. Beehr, PhD, director of PhD programs in industrial and organizational psychology at Central Michigan University in Mount Pleasant, says signs of workplace stress include:
  • withdrawing from the job
  • not showing up
  • coming in late
  • leaving early
  • avoiding phone calls
  • rise in blood pressure
  • an increase in drinking