• Is Career Stress Killing You? Tips for Reclaiming Your Life

    by Matthew Goldenberg, D.O.
    on Dec 5th, 2018

Stress is not all bad. In fact, research indicates that occasional episodes of stress can actually act as a performance enhancer, boosting focus and alertness.

However, if stress levels get too high or become chronic, the result can be detrimental. For example, chronic exposure to stress can increase the risk of heart disease, stroke, and burnout, which can lead to anxiety, depression, insomnia, substance use problems and suicide.

Taking a step back from the stress is the obvious solution. However, that is easier said than done.

What if your profession is one of the many in which stress is part of the job description? That’s how it can feel for those in high-responsibility and high-pressure careers such as physicians, pilots, attorneys, CEOs and others. For many, extreme workloads and expectations become the norm and there is daily intense competition. For physicians (and others), patients/clients lives or livelihoods may directly depend on your success and your ability to thrive under pressure.

Hyperwork and Ethical Suffering

So what do such professionals do when the job stress becomes too much? Often, they’ll adopt an endurance mindset and simply try harder to meet the demands — a state known as “hyperwork.” This may be manageable as long as some downtime is scheduled; however, moments of respite all too frequently get put on the back burner as the career (and demands of life outside of work) continues to intrude. Going beyond the call of duty then becomes expected — it becomes the new “normal.”

This is unfortunate in so many ways. Not only is it a recipe for burnout, it allows organizations to avoid dealing with their own structural, staffing and cultural deficiencies — ones that may be directly pushing their workforce to strive for more than can be achieved, to the eventual detriment of all. In the case of physicians, burnout among doctors has been directly tied to patient satisfaction and outcomes.

Additionally, a culture of “hyperwork” can also lead to what is termed “ethical suffering,” a profound conflict of values in which the person is no longer able to live up to their own standards or the standards of their profession due to constraints over which they have no control.

Consider, for example, a doctor working in the health care field, a profession that is well known for its punishing workload and for promoting a culture of endurance and perseverance. It is not uncommon for a physician to struggle to keep up with expanding job requirements, growing patient loads, the increasing demands of electronic medical records and other requirements of modern medical practices. In many cases, doctors are forced to spend less time with patients than they feel is appropriate or take other distressing shortcuts, which go against their core values or the reasons they initially went into medicine. The alternative is wearing down their physical and/or mental health trying to do it all.

Sadly, the more conscientious and dedicated the professional, the more susceptible they are to symptoms of ethical suffering and burnout. As a 2015 Canadian analysis of doctor stress noted: “Self-denial and altruism, so valued by the medical culture, may represent serious risks to physicians’ health and stability, and impede their ability to deliver quality health care to others.”

In a 2012 U.S. survey, close to one out of every two physicians reported symptoms of burnout, which in its advanced stages can cause work to seem meaningless, prompt them to detach emotionally from others in order to keep doing the job, and lead them to feel exhausted, professionally ineffective and hopeless.

Tips for Tackling Stress

Though job stress isn’t completely unavoidable, with effort and attention, it can be minimized and prevented from spiraling out of control. Among the steps that can help:

Reaching Out

Perhaps most important when dealing with stress is recognizing it when it comes, and taking steps to deal with it before it becomes so entrenched that burnout is inevitable. Pay attention to irritability and fatigue, which can be early signs of stress. And if you are not able to bounce back on your own, arrange for the care of a mental health professional.

Admitting you need a hand can be a daunting thought to those who have been indoctrinated to believe they must rely only on themselves. And, of course, it is natural to think about the effect on your professional reputation if you reach out and seek help. But the truth is you are much more likely to jeopardize your career — and more — if you need help but never reach out for it.

Author Matthew Goldenberg, D.O. Matthew Goldenberg D.O. is double Board Certified in Psychiatry and Addiction Psychiatry and is a certified Medical Review Officer (MRO). He is an expert in the evaluation and treatment of mental health disorders and is an addiction specialist for adults in his private practice in Santa Monica, California. Dr. Goldenberg also provides addiction psychiatry consultations to some of the nation’s top residential and outpatient treatment programs in the Los Angeles area and is experienced in the evaluation and treatment of professionals working in safety-sensitive positions. In addition to his clinical work, Dr. Goldenberg is an active author, researcher and invited speaker at local and national conferences. He also volunteers his time as a Clinical Instructor in the Department of Psychiatry at UCLA and is an Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Cedars Sinai Medical Center.

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