I work with many people who are stressed out. They work too hard and lack control over their work hours. They have bosses, partners, clients, or managers who insist that they respond right away. They are not able to spend time with their friends and families, even on weekends.


Many of these stressed out people have been trying to find relief in ways that damage them. Some are using pills and drugs and some drink too much. They are uncertain about why they are so stressed out. Is it their fault, or is it the workplace? Could they do something to relieve the stress, or is it built into the workplace culture?

The answer is often both: many workplaces are unreasonably demanding, but the overstressed worker is often a “responsibility sponge.”

Many large law firms, for example, pay associates a lot of money, but in return they expect to get extraordinary productivity. The stress is baked in the cake when turn-around times are supposed to be lightning fast. It might not really be necessary to have such rapid response, but many partners are afraid that they will lose clients if they do not function as a rapid response team.

Many stressed out workers are highly responsible people. When I call them “responsibility sponges” they laugh and nod in agreement. They want to do the best work they can, which often requires more time than they are supposed to put into a project. They cannot just do “good enough” work. They need to do A+ work. They often have trouble delegating work because they believe only they can do the best job. And although clients don’t want to pay for perfection, they expect perfection, which adds to the culture of pervasive stress. Over-stressed workers trying to deliver perfection push themselves to the highest level of accomplishment even if it means losing out on much-needed time for friends, family, and personal rebooting.

What can you do about this problem if you are one of the stressed out people caught between a rock and a hard place? Here are five steps to get out of your state of perpetual stress.

Step One

First, go outside on a clear night and look at the sky. You heard me. Go outside and look at the stars. The universe is vast. Our world is a speck in the corner of the universe. Our lives are brief in the history of the world. Put your life in perspective. Whether the client gets his answer immediately or after the weekend really doesn’t matter as much as you or the client might think. In the scheme of things, this crazy stuff at work is small potatoes. What is going on at work is very Alice In Wonderland, Through the Looking Glass. Everyone at work may have bought into the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, but that doesn’t mean it is sane. Your work place culture is nuts. Keep remembering that and when you forget, go outside on a clear night and look at the sky.

Step Two

Play “fix this job.” Think about your work situation and pretend you are the king of everything. If you are the king of everything and could make your job over to be the kind of place that would not stress you out, what would that look like? Would you have a four day work week? Would you be able to work from home? Would you have a different boss? Write it down.

Step Three

Next, think about whether you have any leverage at work. Are you essential to your partner or boss, and in what way are you valuable or irreplaceable for your workplace? Can you use your leverage to make some alterations in your work world so that it gets closer to the work situation you could live with? Realistically, how could you restructure your work to get it closer to the job you want? Would you need to hand off certain work projects or certain matters to someone else to handle on a routine basis? Do you need take the time to train someone so that you trust them to do the work you delegate to them? Do you need to have a talk with your partner or boss about what you will and will not do over the weekend or at ten at night? Of course you have to use good judgement when you think about these options. If you do not have good leverage, then a frank talk about your unwillingness to work after normal business hours might mean you would lose your job. You want to be careful about your strategy. If you have a mentor at work or someone you trust in your field who is more senior, talk with him or her to get ideas and suggestions. I work with many clients who need to make this sort of judgement call and figure out a strategy about how to accomplish a restructured work setting that will help them be less stressed. We practice how to have that difficult conversation with the boss, which brings us to step four.

Step Four

Prepare for a difficult conversation with your manager, boss, or partner. You want to think through what you are going to say and how to say it. Never go into a meeting where you are requesting a restructuring of your work group or work flow without a plan that reassures your boss or manager that you will still be available to do the work that he or she needs done in a reasonably timely manner. If you need an altered schedule, explain why, and explain the benefits of a new schedule not just for you but for the workplace. Co-workers and bosses need to know you will still be there for them. Don’t expect to change the entire culture of a high-stress workplace, but do try to alter what you can to relieve your own stress to the extent possible.

Step Five

Sometimes you need to do more. You might need to get outside help from a counselor or therapist. If so, don’t be ashamed to get that help. If, for example, you are able to alter your workplace so that you are accommodated and there is less pressure on you but you still feel anxious and stressed out, that might be a sign that you could use more help. Sometimes the right answer is that you need to leave the workplace and find a calmer, more relaxed place to work. We all know there are Type A people and Type B people. But there are also Type A and Type B workplaces. You might need to find that Type B workplace to get the life you want and need to have. These places do exist. To find them, use friends, family, and LinkedIn to locate people who used to work there or work there now. Talk with these people about the culture of the workplace you are about to join to be sure the workplace is not the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party.

Stress is damaging the lives of many workers. During the recent recession, workplaces cut back on staff and demanded more from those people who remained. Anyone with a job felt fortunate to have that job and worked very hard to stay employed. Productivity rose. But often along with high productivity comes stress because too few people are doing too much work. As the economy continues its recovery, workers can and should ask that their companies and firms hire more people so that good workers do not burn out. It does the company no good to spend the money finding and training good people only to have them leave because they are too stressed out and overworked.