By Dr. Chip Roper
Unprecedented stress! If you think your work is more and more defined by stress, you are not alone. Knowledge@Wharton, the publishing platform for the famous business school, suggests we are living in an age of unprecedented work stress:
“Global competition, downsizing and the constant state of being electronically tethered to the office are combining to create a perhaps unprecedented level of stress” (see Knowledge@Wharton, http://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article/stressed-work-youre-alone/).
I have to imagine that trying to grow crops in a desert climate or fighting with a sabertooth tiger for your lunch were pretty stressful! Seems like work stress is part of the human condition.
So what is the best way to conquer work stress?
In this post I’ll share two basic strategies and end with a huge pivot in my own life as it relates to dealing with stress.
Dealing with Stress 101: Ruthlessly End Ambiguity
Ambiguity fuels much of our work-related stress. We are unsure about what is expected. We are unsure of how we are performing. This lack of clarity opens the door to presumed doubts and fears. A downward spiral of catastrophizing ensues, and before we know it, we’re drowning in a puddle of anxiety about our work future and every other aspect of our future—hard to imagine a happy tomorrow without some level of work success. How do we arrest this cycle?
Consider these ancient words:
Desire without knowledge is not good, and whoever makes haste with his feet misses his way. (Proverbs 19:2).
Stress is desire without knowledge; it is making haste to read between the lines. The truth is we don’t know where we stand and we assume the worst.
You can end ambiguity by calmly, clearly, and consistently, getting answers to the following three questions:
- What is expected? What do your customers, colleagues, reports, and supervisor, expect of your behavior and performance?
- What is important? What is really important to your customers and your boss? Results, price, relationship? How can you prioritize your time if you do not know what matters in the eyes of the people that matter?
- How are you doing? Asking for feedback, not like a needy teenager, but like a confident adult—will give you confidence and clarity regarding how you can grow. Perhaps you need to lead your witnesses: “What was the best thing about that project, task, presentation, and what could have made it better?”
Personal relaxation techniques are no substitute for getting real-time intel on what matters in your job and tracking how you’re doing. Call it reality therapy. Even if the truth hurts, at least you now know what deserves concern. In some cases, you may even decide you’d rather not meet the expectations and move on.
Dealing with Stress 201: Grow God-centered Identity
Work is challenging because of the always on, 24/7, globally connected, nature of modern labor. Work is stressful because constant assaults on our ability to perform threaten our sense of identity. Dealing with Stress 201 is growing a solid source of identity that is not imbedded in your career achievements.
Tim Keller providers insightful analysis on the fragile modern sense of self we call identity. In summary, he shares the following overview:
- Traditional identities are achieved—we live up to the expectations of family, clan, or country.
- Modern identities are achieved—we throw off the demands of any group or tradition and decide for ourselves what matters and how well we are living up to these ideas.
Yet any identity which depends on your achievement is of necessity fragile and oppressive.
In contrast, Christian identity is received. Our value is established by the fact that we are created by God, in his image, and then re-created through surrender to Jesus. As Jesus’s closest friend John wrote, “see what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called Children of God.” (See 1 John 3:1).
When we internalize our children of God status, with all the perks and promises included in the title, we immunize ourselves from the automatic threat responses that give life to much of our stress. Discover more about the power of identity here: https://gospelinlife.com/downloads/gospel-identity-conference/
Stress Reduction and Surrender
I started this series with a tale of anxiety induced insomnia. Since moving to New York City to lead the start-up that has become VOCA, I’ve found myself dealing with acute stress more frequently than I did in my former exurban life. After a rough night, I was nursing my early morning coffee, looking out at the city, which was already humming with busyness. I happened upon the following words in my daily reading regimen:
I lift up my eyes to the hills.
From where does my help come?
My help comes from the LORD,
who made heaven and earth.
He will not let your foot be moved;
he who keeps you will not slumber.
Behold, he who keeps Israel
will neither slumber nor sleep.
The LORD is your keeper;
the LORD is your shade on your right hand.
The sun shall not strike you by day,
nor the moon by night.
The LORD will keep you from all evil;
he will keep your life.
The LORD will keep
your going out and your coming in
from this time forth and forevermore.
(Psalm 121, English Standard Version).
The message to me was clear—not audible words but thoughts that were not my own. “What are you so worried about, Chip? Why can’t you look at all of life like one grand adventure. When you’re doing something adventurous—scuba diving, white water rafting, deep sea fishing, traveling someplace new—you jump out of bed in the morning. When you’re doing something adventurous, you don’t know how it will all turn out and you certainly don’t try to control every detail” (often my adventures involve surrendering control to a guide or expert). God was saying, “If I Am your keeper, then the adventure will end well.”
This adventure idea was a pivot for me with my work, a point when I knew I had to stop investing so much of my identity and security in how well my venture was doing. Freedom comes from finding anchors for my identity as a child of God. From that place of security, I can courageously seek and find the truth about what I’m doing. From that place of security, I can rest assured that no matter what happens, it will never be the end of the world. My divine guide will ensure that the adventure ends well.
Work stress for me is about so much more than work. It is about who or what I look to to make myself secure. I am learning over and over there’s only one secure source of security, and when we rest in him, much of the power of stress is gone.
How about you.
- How might going to war against work-related ambiguity bring stress reducing clarity to your work experience?
- From where do you draw your sense of identity and how does your answer affect your work-life resilience?
- What is your reaction to the idea of seeing life as an adventure where God is the guide who is ultimately in control? How might it bring you immunity to stress?
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As the President of The VOCA Center, Dr. Chip Roper is driven to rescue people from the forces that rob them of effectiveness and joy at work. VOCA delivers customized coaching and training to executives, professionals, company teams, and the pastors who serve them. Chip regularly speaks on topics of faith, work, and calling. He produces The Calling Workshop, a quarterly event in Midtown Manhattan and facilitates a monthly peer mentoring experience entitled The Executive Circle. Chip and his wife of 32 years, Audrey, have three daughters. They live along the East River in the Long Island City neighborhood of New York City. Email: email@example.com. Ministry Website: www.vocacenter.org.