“How do you deal with stress?” This staple of the job interview question bank made me ask myself “where does stress come from, anyway?” The answers I found mostly pointed to dishonesty of one kind or another. Get honest with yourself and your boss and you might kiss much of your stress goodbye.
5. We’ll Need You to Come in on Saturday
Fans of the cult-classic film Office Space can hear this line being delivered by uber-boss Lundberg. While I’m writing this from the perspective of the average knowledge worker, I think it’s important to have some compassion for managers. In my experience, a manager is in the business of making promises to his higher-ups and doing whatever it takes to make these happen. Often the request for extra work comes when someone, somewhere in the chain of command has made an estimation mistake and they’re looking to make up the difference.
The lie, then, isn’t that management has a need (they do), but that it’s a good idea to stress their subordinates in order to make up lost ground. Worse, once unplanned, often unpaid, overtime is given it becomes expected. The truth behind the lie is “your job description has been altered without negotiation.”
In order to avoid the stress that comes with the lie, you must, at a minimum, get honest with yourself. If the job requires more hours than you signed on for, you can with integrity agree (even if it is only silently to yourself) that you accept this change and build your life around “coming in on Saturdays” from here on out.
More assertively, you may simply push back with something along the lines of “Unfortunately I have a prior commitment and won’t be available on Saturday.” One of the best defenses against encroaching work hours is to be publicly busy at all times other than when explicitly at work. There’s no need to declare why you are busy, only that you are. Acceptable forms of “busy” include sleeping, watching junk TV, and goofing off. For the nosy, I recommend the response “it’s personal” and if that fails, fall back to “‘it’s personal’ means I don’t discuss it at work.” Repeat as necessary until the inquisitor gives up.
4. If I Say “No”, I’ll Lose my Job!
If that last paragraph made you break out in a cold sweat, perhaps the above lie came immediately to mind. This is not to say that if you say “no” you can’t be fired, only that most of us fear losing our jobs far in excess of actual job loss. This bumper crop of fear drives us to say “yes” to the detriment of our own personal stress level and quality of life.
What not everyone knows is that firing and replacing workers is a stressful, expensive, dangerous prospect for employers. Psychologically, sacking someone is gut wrenching for almost everyone. What’s more, in most places, firing a worker opens the company up to lawsuits for discrimination or false termination. Even if the termination itself goes off without a hitch, they still may have to pay out unemployment insurance. Then comes the matter of finding your replacement and training that replacement up to some fraction of your skill level, which can take months.
Given all these hurdles, the average boss, despite any protestations to the contrary, lives in fear of having to fire a subordinate. They’d much rather hear a few examples of “no” from you from time to time than even begin thinking about replacement. If you still have doubts, look around and see how many middling to extremely incompetent people work around you. If they’re still working, chances are, so will you.
3. You’ll be Done by Tuesday, Right?
For all but the most menial tasks, figuring out how long a task will take is a black art at best. Good managers know this. Bad managers lie to themselves and dictate deadlines without any effort at actual estimation.
This lie is actually two lies in one. The first lie is that deadlines can be dictated. If you buy the lie and agree to the deadline, the result will be stress when you learn how long the task will actually take, and chances are it will be much longer than the boss indicated.
The second lie is that non-trivial tasks can be estimated with any sort of accuracy. In my work, I’ve found this not to be the case. Even if your manager is being smart and asking you how long you think something will take, it’s a mistake — if not a lie — to give a definite time and date. Being able to communicate uncertainty is an important part of making an honest estimate. “I think we’ve got a very good chance of finishing early next week” is more honest than “we’ll be done at 2pm Tuesday.”
The best way to deal with an unrealistic, dictated deadline is to call it out. You can be diplomatic, but you must be firm. “That estimate doesn’t seem realistic,” or “I’m concerned that we won’t be able to make that date,” are just two of the many ways to convey your sense that the estimate is wrong. I even turned it into a running joke. When confronted with a clearly wrong estimate, I would say “I can disappoint you now, or I can disappoint you later, which would you like?” Of course, I’m really not offering the choice since I’ve already disagreed with the estimate, but a little levity can go a long way.
Some bosses will insist on their divine right to dictate deadlines in the face of all evidence to the contrary. This is one of the most stressful situations I’ve ever encountered, and the best thing you can do is stay honest with yourself and not start speeding up in a futile effort to hit a bad estimate. It takes a lot of acceptance to work in a job where your best effort will be looked on as underperformance, but sometimes that’s the best possible adaptation to an impossible situation.
2. My Job Will be Better Once this Project is Over
It’s natural, if you have any optimism at all, to look for light at the end of the tunnel when going through a tough patch at work. While there can be temporary and isolated “rough patches” at work, the more common scenario is that when things have changed for the worse, they’ve changed for a reason which will not be going away any time soon. If you believe the lie, you may be waiting a long, long time for things to improve at work.
When things are bad, it’s best to get real about how bad things are. Can you live this way? Do you want to live this way? If the answer is no, developing an exit strategy may be far superior to waiting and hoping for change.
1. Excuse Me, I have to Take this Call
No, you do not have to take this call. Unless you work in emergency medicine, you probably don’t have to take any calls from work unless they’ve been pre-negotiated. Part of the dishonesty behind this lie is a false sense of urgency that can infect many workplaces. I use the word ‘infect’ very deliberately. Tension can jump from one person to another in an office, often without anyone noticing how tense the tone has become.
If work is tense and there is an unstated agreement that everyone snatches up their phones at all hours of the day or night, it’s time to build some better habits. Putting phones on silent, turning off email alerts on your PC, and dealing with office communication on your own timeline can help restore a sense that work is just work, and nothing to get too wound up about. You might even infect your coworkers with your sense of calm and poise.
All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .on and was last reviewed or updated by