A Simple Formula for Surviving Stressful Jobs

If you work in a high-stakes, high-pressure environment, you understand the toll it can take.  Yes, your job is important.  Your work has great meaning.  People are counting on you.  The successes are exhilarating.  And though you often feel tired, you’ve found your own ways to cope with it.

Unfortunately, coping is the problem, not the solution.  It is not possible to be at one’s best when exhausting precious energy on coping.  Unfortunately, many high-stakes professionals and their teams function far below capacity without even knowing it.  As the heat rises, the ability to cope begins to feel like an accomplishment in itself.  But it isn’t.  Efforts to survive encroach dramatically on the potential to thrive.  The result is chronic underperformance.

So, what about you?  Are you functioning at your best?  Are you thriving?  Is the juice worth the squeeze?

If the answer is no, it doesn’t have to be.  Stop coping and start thriving.  But first, understand how your personal and professional life may be impaired by the distorted sense of self-awareness that high-stakes environments tend to produce.    

Stress is a strange thing, and so are our brains. Like the muscles of our bodies, when our brains exert extra effort due to the pressures and stresses of our jobs, they respond, initiating clever adaptations to preserve, as much as possible, our mental and emotional well-being.

One of the more subtle adjustments made by the brain is to recalibrate itself so that the demands and expectations we face don’t seem so daunting. In other words, we get used to it.

Many of us know, for example, the blood-curdling feeling one gets when listening to a screaming baby on a long flight.  It is like being stabbed in the temples with a No. 2 pencil.  But after some of us have kids and spend countless nights rocking our new-borns to sleep, our newly-calibrated sensory systems change how we perceive.  Those same babies on those same airplanes now seem like minor distractions.  We got used to it.  

When it comes to workplace pressures, however, getting used to it is dangerous.  Our brains trick us into feeling like the stresses that are keeping us awake at night aren’t so abnormal. In fact, they start to feel normal, to the point that they don’t feel like stress at all.  Our central and sympathetic nervous systems adjust how we process sensory information so that we “feel” as if we are at peace with the world around us when, in fact, we shouldn’t be.

To support the added mental and emotional workloads common to high-stakes environments, our physiological systems ramp-up their operations.  Blood pressure rises. We crave dietary calories causing an increase to our body weight. We cut into our time for sleep as we mentally process everything that happened during the workday.  

As good as our brains are at adapting to stress, they are not so good at corralling our runaway ambitions – even when those ambitions are killing us. Those of us with Type A personalities know this all too well. Just as we begin getting used to the stress, we pile on more. And why not? We earn more money, gain more influence, and enjoy the satisfaction that comes with added prestige.  Eventually we exhaust so much personal energy and strength that our health, our effectiveness, and our judgement deteriorate, often without us realizing it.

None of us should hope to survive in our professional endeavors; we should hope to thrive. But to do so in high-stakes, high-pressure jobs requires that we have and maintain a strong and healthy relationship with our bodies, our minds, and with reality.  And there is a simple formula for self-preservation in the most difficult of times:

For every tax we levy on ourselves, we have to pay it back as soon as possible.

For example, if you have a job that requires you to sit for long periods of time, then you must pay yourself back by programming time for rigorous physical activity. If you deal with emotionally exhausting issues at work, such as working with children who are victims of sexual abuse, then you must pay yourself back by confiding in friends, family, or a professional counselor or therapist. If you spend several hours a day in a pressure-packed workplace, you must find time to calm yourself – maybe you enjoy listening to soothing music or sitting quietly by the shore of a meandering stream.

Do not wait for your employer to suddenly realize that you are burning out.  It may never happen.  Take the steps necessary to nourish yourself when you are mentally or emotionally starving.

The United States and other western civilizations are witnessing epidemics brought on by stress: depression, anxiety disorders, drug addiction, alcoholism, heart disease, cancer, and a variety of other troublesome maladies. In 2013, according to the Centers for Disease Control, there were a reported 41,149 suicides in the United States alone – a number that, in one year, approaches the total loss of American lives during the deadliest years in Vietnam.

There is a lesson to be learned here for all of us.  Entire societies, teams, and organizations are vulnerable to doing what all of us do as individuals – fooling ourselves into thinking that everything is okay when it is not.  Blinded by the fog of ambition, we lend-out our health, our families, and our relationships without collecting interest.  This is ironic because without these pillars of a life well-lived, it becomes almost impossible to fully enjoy whatever it was we were seeking to achieve in the first place.

Let’s be clear. Working hard is good.  Improving our quality of life is honorable.  There are very difficult jobs that must be done.  But when we subject ourselves to unrelenting mental and emotional hardship without taking care of ourselves, it becomes impossible to function at maximum capacity.

The formula for successfully managing high-stakes, high-pressure jobs is simple; we must continually reimburse our personal selves for the professional costs we incur.  Never put more into your job than you are willing to put into yourself.  As you gain professional success, perhaps you should think twice about making that huge purchase that will likely come with equally huge worries. Instead, repay yourself back.  Put your money and attention where it belongs – in your physical, mental, and emotional health.  Get a massage once a month.  Take vacations. Spend time with your loved-ones. Get a club membership. Go fishing.  Play golf.  Learn to paint or play a musical instrument.  Rekindle relationships with old friends.

Do what you must to fill the psychological craters that your job is leaving on your consciousness.  For everything that your job takes a way from you, pay it back in full.  Both you and your employer will be better off for it.

If you don’t, the final cost may come at the expense of your quality and duration of life.

By John Collins MA, SHRM-SCP
Published on August 30, 2017

John Collins is a High-Stakes Leadership Consultant and Executive Coach at Critical Victories (www.criticalvictories.com).