here are many ways of dealing with extreme stress at work: chatting around the water cooler with colleagues or sharing the odd drink after hours often does the trick.
The mind, however, also has its own unconscious methods of shutting out aspects of work that can otherwise lead to intolerable anxiety. This helps distance oneself from overwhelmingly bad feelings, such as jealousy, insecurity and anger. However, these coping methods can create more problems than they solve because to varying degrees they all depend on a distortion of reality.
These defence mechanisms might take an optimistic form, with someone rationalising that a situation is not as bad as it actually is. At the other end of the continuum are more destructive responses, such as denying the existence of a problem. Another common coping method is blaming others for problems rather than admitting to responsibility that could leave one feeling guilty or bad about oneself.
Kerry Sulkowicz, a psychoanalyst and founder of the Boswell Group, a New York business consultancy, says these are unconscious choices, determined by an individual’s psychology and the nature of the stress: “A problem with these defences is that ultimately they break down. They can’t last for ever and the longer they persist, the worse the consequences may be for the individual — because time is passing them by and opportunities for change may be lost.”
An example comes from a founding chief executive who is charismatic and effective in attracting business, but is unable to deal with the stress of making critical decisions about his staff. As a result he has a bloated team of high-paid people who do very little. He is in denial, not of the dire straits that his company is in, but of his role in its impending collapse. He does not see that his inability to make tough personnel decisions and ultimately hand over control to a new CEO is crippling the company. Instead, he projects the problems on to his antagonised board of directors and rids himself of responsibility.
His inability to hear any negative feedback is indicative of another defence mechanism, known as “splitting”, where people and the news they bring become factors that either make him feel good or bad about himself. While the “bad” are rejected, the “good” are rewarded with loyalty.
People such as this CEO cannot tolerate the tension and confusion arising from complexity. The danger is that they trash differing opinions and ignore essential information.
His team in turn employ coping methods for dealing with their conflicting feelings towards the CEO — of dependency and admiration on the one hand, and anger and contempt on the other. The healthy ones know this is a dying business and prepare to leave, while others rationalise why they should stay — “he does bring in business after all” — and the less aware deny that a problem exists.
Avoiding stress by distorting reality through such psychological defensive measures can also play a detrimental part in financial decision making. David Tuckett, a psychoanalyst and professor at University College London, and author of Minding the Markets: an Emotional Finance View Of Financial Instability, describes how this can lead to a failure to take in crucial information about a particular investment.
According to Prof Tuckett, people can become dismissive of inconvenient evidence because somewhere in their minds, beyond immediate awareness, they feel uncomfortable about the decision they are making but cannot bear to explore further.
He explains: “They try not to take in the information because the information is not just information, it creates feeling. It creates anxiety, it creates a sense of risk of loss, or guilt in case they get it wrong, so they try to get rid of it. The more they get rid of it, the more [it] potentially creates a bigger loss in future.”
These defence mechanisms originate in childhood and are often the only protection a child may have against the onslaught of perceived threats, such as being rejected or treated unfairly. People carry these unconscious strategies into their working lives, and even though they may be immature reactions to adult problems, they help people maintain a fantasy that life is predictable, benevolent and free from horrible feelings.
This was the case for one man in marketing and sales who came from a reserved, repressed family where strong emotions were never discussed, and self-confidence not encouraged. This left him dissociated from powerful feelings that he could not deal with, such as rivalry and resentment.
Although in many ways he became an ideal employee, never challenging authority or becoming a threat to colleagues, he missed out on his own career advancement and the satisfaction and sense of triumph that comes from such progression.
He reflects on his career: “I lived my working life in a state of numbness, drifting through it in a trancelike state, going through the motions and not really reacting to people. Because you’re shutting out your own feelings, you’re more cut off from colleagues and managers, and certainly you can’t read people as well.
“There’s a large amount of regret. Not so much that I didn’t climb the greasy pole enough, but that I ruled myself out from jobs and experiences that could have fulfilled my potential. But to be ambitious was to put me in line for disappointment and rivalry, feelings I couldn’t cope with.”
Certain situations, however, are so stressful as to break through any psychological defences, leaving the person overwhelmed with anxiety and unable to make sense of, or manage, the onslaught of confusing events. A sense of worthlessness and loss of confidence prevail, and confirm the worst fears one has of oneself.
This was the case for a woman in banking who found herself confused and unable to think rationally when faced with repeated accusations and threats from a bullying boss. She says: “The most difficult bit was that I could never get it right. I focused on trying to please him and his requests just to protect myself from the explosions and confrontations. This erased any spark and energy I had. I started to doubt myÂself, which eventually affected my perÂfÂormance, my self-esteem and health.”
With guidance, she was able to reconnect with her better qualities and positive attitude. “Looking back, I am astounded to reflect on my situation and how badly I was affected,” she says. “It seems like a bad dream, I’m sure I will carry a scar for all my life, but it is good. It will remind me to protect myself better in future.”
The writer is a psychotherapist and this article is based partly on her clinical experience. To contribute to her forthcoming piece on the effects of business travel on workers and their families, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org
By Naomi Shragai