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Keeping success and stress in balance.

Keeping success and stress in balance

While recuperating from surgery, I received a call from a professional friend who wanted to know how I was progressing - and to seek my advice.

My friend successfully manages the laboratory of a large metropolitan hospital. Since the lab operates smoothly and cost-effectively under her capable leadership, I wondered how I could help. She replied, "I can't seem to relax."

Upon arriving home from work late each evening, she said, and even on days off, she found herself restless and frequently depressed. Had I ever experienced this problem, she wanted to know? How did I apparently remain motivated all the time?

After several lengthy conversations of a similar nature, I concluded that my friend was suffering from what might be paradoxically called "the crisis of success." For the past 18 years she had been totally wrapped up in the challenge, pleasure, and adventure of her demanding job. The excitement generated by work may have made other forms of gratification - family, vacations, traveling, reading, the theater - seem inconsequential. For my friend, the world beyond the workplace had become bewildering, even alien.

Not everyone who gets "high" on work and success in neurotic. Accomplishment, prestige, and recognition are perceived by many as the greatest sources of satisfaction. Some look for power and money as well. When the prospect of using unstructured time productively makes a person uneasy, however, it's time to reassess the relationship between work and play.

For my friend, the previous 12 years had been filled with many difficult and stressful work challenges. She had headed the opening of a brand-new hospital lab, preparing budgets and instrument purchases while recruiting, interviewing, hiring, and training new staff. She rose to the occasion by putting in many long hours, often 12 to 13 per day, to make sure the laboratory would be ready to operate on time and provide high-quality service.

After living in this hectic environment for a dozen years, my friend had literally forgotten how to relax. As happens all too often in such situations, she had allowed many of the most precious parts of life, including close ties with family and friends, to drift.

Before the arrival of that dangerous moment is the time to refocus from a concentration on work, with its emphasis on competition and achievement, to a concentration on the leisure that encourages laughter and the ability to enjoy the outdoors and participate in other forms of simple relaxation.

Many compulsive workers avoid dealing with this problem altogether until a personal crisis arises that is too great to ignore. As I know from personal experience, physicians wisely warn us to slow down or face the consequences. I am a "recovered workaholic" myself who ignored good medical advice and subsequently suffered a severe reversal of my health and a diagnosis of cancer.

Resisting vacations and quiet time with family and friends out of fear of missing a chance to make a good show at work or to look good in the boss's eyes demonstrates a compulsive and desperate work habit. It is also important to realize that we have a share in building other people's egos, not just our own. The individual who constantly demonstrates a single-minded devotion to the job is on the way to becoming addicted to work. My friend was such an addict, as I had unwisely been before her.

For many hard workers, trying to strike a balance between achievement and leisure requires a major reorientation. It did for me. It did for my friend, too, who regretfully had to undergo therapy before she could recognize the real reasons behind her addiction to work.

Some people develop work addictions to create outlets for aggression or simply to increase their self-esteem. Low self-confidence often begins in childhood. Just as children are praised for good deeds, they are taught to believe that the more they do, the better. Often this philosophy is acceptable, but when it interferes with the ability to be a person, prompt changes are called for.

Fortunately, most people who want to modify their relationship to work yet enjoy their leisure time and their families do not need therapy. The crucial steps are to acknowledge the need to strike a balance and to be willing to change work habits. Other measures will follow naturally. Getting involved in activities such as aerobics, jogging, coaching children's sports teams, or taking an occasional mini-vacation to walk on the beach or hike through the woods is therapeutic in itself.

Workaholics tend to be exhausted from overwork and to become angry because they feel undervalued and unappreciated. A typical consequence of this resentment is to lash out at the most convenient victims: the staff. The resulting tension is extremely harmful in relationships with co-workers and in sense of self.

As pressure increases in those who have created no escape valves for their anger, they become more prone to such stress-related diseases as heart attacks, ulcers, migraine headaches, and yes, even cancer. These individuals are most susceptible to disease in general as well as to mental health problems and alcohol and drug abuse.

To handle stress appropriately, we must feel confident and competent in our roles on the job and at home. We must also realize that the person at the top of the organization - the laboratory director or manager - sets the tone. If these individuals are demanding and inflexible, the entire staff may become authoritarian.

Clinical laboratory science is changing rapidly. We will always have to adjust to advancing technology, developing diseases, new procedures and regulations, and personnel turnover. Hospital patients, nursing and medical staff, and other health professionals change as well. Working 10, 11, or 12 hours per day to stay on top of things is not the answer; just the opposite. We must take the time to analyze the stressful aspects of our jobs and balance work time with leisure time. During leisure time, we must be sure to choose enjoyable activities that induce relaxation.

To the compulsive worker, those crucial first steps can be difficult and frustrating. They must nevertheless be taken to regain control of one's own life.

As we grow increasingly sensitive to the changes in our own life-styles, the more confident we will become. This chain of events will, in turn, allow us to help effect positive changes in others.

The goal is to summon what Hans Selye, M.D., Ph.D., called the relaxation response whenever we decide it is necessary. When we do this, we can feel assured that we are on the right track both mentally and physically.

Success is great, but it is not the only thing.

General references:

Baines, D.D. "Nine Steps Toward Beating Executive Stress." Montgomery, Ala., Professional Development, Inc., 1979.

Donnelly, G.F. How do I know I'm on the right track? RN 43(9): 44 - 46, September 1980.

Karasek, R.A. Jr. Job demands, job decision latitude, and mental strain: Implications for job redesign. Admin. Sci. Q. 24: 285 - 308, 1979.

Rohrich, J. When success hurts. Inc. 3(9): 146 - 147, September 1981.

Selye, H. "The Stress of Life." New York, McGraw - Hill, 1976.

Smith, J. Coping with stress in a high-pressure occupation. MLO 12(9): 139 - 146, September 1980.

The author, a member of MLO's Editorial Advisory Board, is manager of the department of pathology and professor of medical technology, State University of New York Health Science Center at Syracuse.
COPYRIGHT 1990 Nelson Publishing
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1990 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Martin, Bettina G.
Publication:Medical Laboratory Observer
Date:May 1, 1990
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