From the book, One Minute Stress Management by Anthony R. Ciminero, Ph.D.
In much of our consulting with large organizations, it is clear that employees today are facing much bigger issues including concerns about job security, retirement plans, and health care benefits than at any time in the recent past. This has been exacerbated by the significant problems in the economy in general since the current economic crisis. Employees facing any insecurity in their family’s financial stability need something more powerful to help them cope. Unfortunately, there are no easy answers to their questions about how to cope with the insecurity that goes along with uncertainty in many work environments. Obviously, these types of concerns escalate when companies reorganize, merge, or go through any other major change that places greater demands on all individuals within the organization. Although this has been most severe in Wall Street and big banking firms, it has had ripple effects throughout the country in all types of companies.
A typical scenario goes something like this. Company ABC goes through a major change and has to deal with certain financial concerns. In some cases the company may have to let some employees go either through attrition, early retirement, or layoffs. Those who have to leave the company without good options elsewhere may be affected severely in the short run. Most employees will handle this crisis generally well in spite of enormous difficulty. Surveys indicate that 90% will eventually find employment at some other company but this would be more difficult in an economic recession. However, those remaining employed at the ABC Company have a new type of stressful situation to handle. In addition to being upset about the loss of some of their co‑workers who may have been like a second family to them, the remaining employees often have more demanding jobs due to shifting work responsibilities. In other words, the Company may have to do as much or more work with fewer employees. It is not uncommon in some companies to hear the Mantra: Do more with less!
Compounding the situation is the anxiety about the future. When will the next cut occur? Will I make it through the downsizing or any reorganization? Will my pension plan be funded? Because of the fear of losing jobs or benefits, these employees may feel that they have to remain silent so that management will not see them as refusing to be good team players. Thus, one of the most common questions we hear is “How do I cope with the reality that losing my job will be devastating, but there is nothing I can do about it? The pressures continue to build and I feel that I am going to explode!”
The answer to these difficult questions has several components. First, keep in mind that there is no answer that will make normal people feel good about bad or threatening situations. Therefore, the answer has to focus on how to best cope with a legitimately difficult situation like losing one’s job. We try to help individuals understand what factors contribute to their worst fears. One important issue is that as human beings we like to be able to predict what is going to happen to us. If we get into highly unpredictable environments, our sense of security is shattered. When we feel insecure, the normal anxieties of not knowing what will occur on a day-to-day basis tend to worsen. We tend to get angry with those individuals who have taken away our security.
Often making matters worse is the fact that some of our cherished beliefs are also shattered. One belief fits closely with the work ethic in our culture. We want to believe that if we work hard and do our jobs well, our employers will reward us with continued employment and benefits. In other words, if we are loyal to our employers, they will be loyal to us. The longer we have invested our careers with a particular employer, the more loyalty and stability we expect in return.
Unfortunately, these expectations are no longer realistic in today’s economy where companies often look for every way possible to make the company stable as well as profitable for the owners and/or shareholders not just in the short run but in the long run. With these factors in mind, what can be done to cope with the threat of a major loss such as your job or an important relationship? First, the person facing the loss has to take a big psychological step back to evaluate the situation. He or she has to look at the possible outcomes and ask an extremely important question: “What is the worst possible thing that could realistically happen, and would I be able to cope with that?” This question forces us to look at the reality of the demands that would face us should our worst fear actually happen. If we cannot see ourselves coping with the worst-case scenario, we must either find a solution that would help us feel more confident that we could cope, or we need to seek out professional help to deal with our options.
In this process of answering the question of whether we can cope with the worst possible outcome, we frequently are able to see that in spite of the enormous difficulties and frustrations that go along with a major loss, we would in fact survive. In other words, this would not become a life or death issue. Understanding that this is not life or death ‑ even though it might feel like it ‑ helps us cope, because it now focuses on the bigger picture.
There are several steps we can take to help us in these difficult situations.
1. Take control of whatever you can control. In my consulting with various self‑help groups such as AA, NA, and GA, I have been impressed with a philosophy about addictions that is very consistent with most psychological principals. These groups endorse the Serenity Prayer:
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change;
the courage to change the things I can;
and the wisdom to know the difference.
Whatever your religious beliefs may be, the important message here is that you will be in a better position if you focus on reminding yourself to take control of anything that is within your power to change. Frustration and disappointment are likely to be the outcomes when you are struggling to change things that are not within your control.
2. Use your creative problem solving skills. Presume that the worst will happen and that is the problem you are facing. Ask yourself “What will my options be?” Panic is less likely to occur when you believe there are options. Establish some additional alternatives ‑ getting a job moonlighting, taking a training course to learn new skills, or looking for new job opportunities now. Individuals in employment agencies often report that it is easier to get a job while you have a job rather than wait until you are unemployed. The bottom line is that you benefit when you have a contingency plan should the event actually occur. As those of us living in coastal states know, hurricanes do happen. We do not know exactly when, where, or how frequently they will hit. However, if we have a plan to deal with the day when the weather reports indicate the inevitable storm will actually hit us directly, we will know what to do. Of course, we still will feel the anxiety of the situation, but our confidence will be higher with a solid plan than it would be without a plan.
3. Talk about the problem with loved ones and those you trust to give you honest and accurate feedback. Keeping your fears to yourself is not likely to alleviate stress. However, this does not suggest that simply complaining about your situation will help much. When several major airlines in Miami were all facing their possible demise, it was impossible to talk to a group of airline employees without the atmosphere becoming very negative. In some ways stress is contagious. Some individuals can be “stress carriers” such that hearing their negativity increases your distress. Again, if you do not have others who can listen and help you process the situation in pro-active ways, seeking professional help is advisable.
4. Minimize any other changes in your life until the period of uncertainty is over. Since additional changes will create additional stress, it is often wise to plan to take on new demands at the right time. This may mean postponing some changes including even some things that would be considered positive stressors such as moving residences, taking on new responsibilities at your children’s school or athletic teams, volunteering your time for extracurricular activities, etc. Getting your budget in order is better done prior to a crisis, so take whatever steps you can now to build up your financial plans.
5. Find some active outlet for your frustration and distress. As discussed previously, stress can increase your frustration to the point that you become too irritable to brainstorm or consider all of your options. This may be the time to be sure you have some outlet for defusing your physical tension. Working out physically, hitting golf balls, playing tennis, basketball, or other active sports, going to sporting events as a spectator where you can yell for your team, are all healthy ways to discharge tension. If your stress is maintained over lengthy periods such as months or even years, it is wise to have a variety of these outlets available to get though these difficult times.
6. Avoid the quick fixes that are tempting in these situations. Even though using alcohol, drugs, or food, or acting out in violent ways may temporarily seem like the easiest way to relieve your distress, these are not healthy methods and in the long run they are likely to cause additional problems.
7. Consider a consultation with a professional through the EAP if the level of distress seems unbearable for too long. Sometime the issues are so complicated that having a psychologist or other mental health counselor as a resource will help you handle the stressful events more effectively. Remember, none of these strategies will make you feel good about a bad situation.
The basic message is that you can do things that will buffer your from the negative effects that can occur in these situations. Trying to be proactive by using coping skills like the ones described above will help you avoid doing anything that could make a bad situation worse.