Work related stress – Is it a symptom or the problem?

By Kathy J. Marshack, Ph.D., P.S.

It may be time-consuming to learn that new computer program, or to revamp your marketing strategy, or to take time from work just to go for a walk, but in the long run you may save yourself a lot of grief. All too often we apply a band-aid when surgery was needed.

Here’s just one real-life example. I had heard stories about cats, that they cold be territorial and even jealous. So I was not surprised when my cat, Misha, started having “accidents” in the house just after the birth of my eldest child. After all, her role as my “baby” was being usurped by the new little bundle.

I was prepared though, being trained in psychology. I introduced Misha to the new baby and played with the cat and baby together. I bought Misha new toys and kitty treats so that she wouldn’t be jealous of the baby’s new things. I made appoint of holding and petting the cat more often than usual, so she wouldn’t feel forgotten.

But in spite of all of my efforts she continued to have “accidents.” I was getting pretty frazzled with a new baby to care for and adjust to and a cat that was going off the deep end. I was about at the end of my rope one day when in walked Misha. I was sitting in the recliner feeding the baby, when Misha walked up to me, crouched at my feet and defecated right in front of me.

That did it. The next day, I packed up the cat and took her to the vet, threatening to leave her there if a solution could not be found. Within a few minutes after examining the cat, the vet advised me that she had cystitis and needed antibiotics. Needless to say within a few days, Misha was back to normal and using the garden instead of my living room.

How often have you been unable to solve a problem because you were looking in the wrong direction as I was with Misha? Or perhaps you thought the solution should be more complicated than it needed to be?

In my situation, I was just to darned smart for my own good. The solution wasn’t nearly as complicated as I had made it. But this experience was a great reminder to me of how often we get lost in our own realities. As a psychologist I can easily thing everything is psychological, because psychology is a big part of my world

Problem solving with people is even more difficult than with cats. But the strategy is really still the same. The first question to ask yourself is, “Is this thing I am observing the signal or the problem?” In Misha’s case, I was observing a signal coming from Misha that was creating a problem for me. In order to solve my problem, I needed to interpret Misha’s signal and develop a solution that would take care of her problem before I could take care of mine.

Recognizing and interpreting the signals that others give us is quite a complex process I realize, but you can improve your skills. And if you are willing to take the time to learn, you can stop a number of crises before they materialize.

For example, I often hear from family business owners that they do not have enough time to attend to themselves or their personal relationships. It’s all work and no play. This is a signal that if ignored will grow into a more serious problem.

You need to ask yourself why are you working so hare? Is that your goal? Most people own a family firm because they have a close-knit family who enjoys being together and who can share their talents in a join venture. But if you are too busy managing the nuts and bolts of the business and have no time to really enjoy and communicate with your family, aren’t you overriding one of the reasons why you started a family business in the first place?

Mistaking signals for the problem is another common error. When a person is angry or aggressive, we tend to listen, but when a person is quiet or passive, we tend to ignore them. Actually, those behaviors are signals of something. Just what they are signals of remains to be discovered.

When one of my daughters was learning her math facts in elementary school, she would complain that she didn’t understand. She hid her papers of just threw them away. She avoided math homework as much as she could. As a result, my husband and I were spending hours each week tutoring her, sometimes staying up for hours coaxing her to try. We even began to wonder if she had a learning disability.

When her teacher suggested that she might be manipulated us, I was shocked. She was always such a nice, sweet, lovable child. She never sucked her thumb or threw a tantrum (pretty rare, right?}. Could she be “snowing” us?

To test out the theory I set up a new system of rewards. If she completed her homework within 30 minutes, without any complaining and without any help from her parents, she could earn a fifty-cent “commission” on her allowance. It only took one day. She knew the math facts all along.

One husband was beside himself because his wife could not keep the house clean. The couple ran the business from their home. Although the husband was out all day with customers, the wife was at home taking care of the four small children answering business calls, and running the company office. The couple had already problem solved somewhat and come up with occasional day care and even a once a month housecleaner, but still the house was a mess.

The problem was they were focusing on the messy house instead of what it represented. In this case, it represented that the wife was torn about her goals. She wanted to be part of the business, but she also wanted to parent her children. Making more time for her to clean the house, a chore she really didn’t like anyway, wasn’t the solution. What worked, however, was to set up a system where she could participate in both worlds without them overlapping so much.

The company office was moved from the dining table to a separate room off the garage. Then the wife devised a schedule that kept her work time separate from her family time. Using these two boundaries, the workspace and the time frame, she was able to be fully with her work and fully with her children when she wanted to.

The bottom line here is that all human behavior is meaningful. But the meaning may come disguised as signals that look like problems themselves. Alcoholism is a signal of a pervasive illness. Alcohol abuse, on the other hand, may be a sign of overwork, too much stress, a lack of parental guidance, or even confusion in the work place. If you try to solve the problem of alcoholism by reducing the person’s stress at work, the alcoholic may just have more time to drink. Likewise, if you recommend alcohol treatment for the person who is abusing alcohol, they may stop drinking but find other self-destructive methods to cope with problems at work.

Whenever I am confronted with this dilemma (Is it a signal or a problem?), I ask myself, “How does this behavior make sense to the person engaging in the behavior?” Don’t ask, “How does it make sense to me?”

If the behavior belongs to someone else, chances are it makes sense in their model of reality, which may look very different than yours. In the case of the couple with the messy house, what made sense according to the wife’s model of reality is that the wife wanted to have a neat house but she wanted something else more. In order to get a clean house, it was necessary to help her accomplish what was more important first.

One final word of caution. While my experience with Misha is a reminder that some solutions are easy and superficial, many problems require deeper probing. While a band-aid may suffice for a while, it will save a lot of wasted energy and questioning if surgery is done immediately.

On that note, now is the time to learn that new computer program, revamp your marketing strategy, and take the time from work to just go for a walk.

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