Work is the cause of most stress


Do you have any stress in your job?

If your answer to this question is a resounding yes, then welcome to the modern workplace. Stress levels, as determined by patient questionnaires, are rising alarmingly, and are having a major impact on the health of business and individuals. In my 15 years of family practice, where 80% of patient visits were traceable to poorly managed stress, the vast majority of this stress originated in the workplace.

My practice was in the commuter town of Newmarket, Ont., and provided me with a unique window through which to see the effects of stress in a cross section of vocations. My patients' workplaces were in the surrounding farmlands, on the main streets in nearby small towns, or in the heart of Toronto's international financial district.

By getting to know the whole family of the worker, I learned a lot more about each of my 4,000 patients than would the specialist who treated a single disease or organ system. I delivered their babies, and made housecalls on their children and their grandparents. I gave them physical examinations, preventative counseling, and treatments for illnesses and injuries in my office. When necessary, I treated more serious health breakdowns in the emergency ward, operating room, or hospital bed.

However, the reality of active practice was not all as I had envisioned as a starry-eyed medical student. I was not at all the heroic medical figure who helped innocent victims of fate or bad luck. It was to my great frustration that most of the health problems I saw, from the trivial to the tragic, never needed to happen. As long as people feel no different than they did in the "good old days," they feel immune to the effects of their bad habits, and many of my attempts at preventative counseling fell on deaf ears.


Once one of these unnecessary disasters did strike a patient, there was finally an interest sparked on the subject of prevention. However, when they sought my recommendations for available resource material to read, most were confused by the plethora of books written in the medical jargon.

The Joy of Stress was written to give each patient some knowledge of what was happening inside his or her body in times of stress, and to provide each with the realization that the simple controls necessary to defend the body were within easy reach. However, patients and readers wanted to know more about how to handle the specific stresses of their jobs, and so the demand for this book began to grow.

Research was through a wide variety of sources. I learned from the traditional medical literature, through the experiences of my patients, from audiences in person or on talk shows, and, most importantly, on a personal level.

In the tumultuous years since I took the bold step of mortgaging our house (with my wife Sharilyn's willing support) to self-publish 27,000 copies of The Joy of Stress, I came to know even more about stress than can be gleaned from any book or classroom. This was a particularly outrageous first printing in a country with such a sparsely spread population (fewer than 20 million anglophones in an area roughly the size of Russia); in this country a national bestseller is a book that sells a mere 5,000 copies.

Within one week of the copies' arrival into our basement in February 1985, every major bookseller in the country turned it down, because I was self-published and unknown. My wife then drove me around to all the small independent stores, with books in the trunk, and our two toddlers asleep in the back seat, while I would run inside to try and place a few copies on consignment.

Knowing that we were going to self-publish from the outset, any sane adviser would have thought us mad to put ourselves under such stress. But stress was my secret ally. Without the fear of failure, as would have been the case if I had been given a rich inheritance or a government grant, the motivation to achieve success would have been less. But, knowing that stress was the missing key to excellence, I used the opportunity to learn as much about the business as possible.

I spoke to authors, customers, marketing experts, bookstore managers, and, most importantly, the kids that work in the front lines in the booksellers. I interviewed many, and selected but a few to be on my team; the best editor, the most skilled artist, and the most effective promotional specialist I could find.

At the same time, I was a lot more careful about the writing style, content, and packaging knowing that one false step would mean a fall without a safety net. All of these risks are shared by any who borrow against their homes or life's savings to start up a small business, and indeed are common to all who share the entrepreneurial spirit.

Thus it was that I put my own theories to the ultimate test: a stress book that was (intentionally) born out of stress. After two months of encouraging sales in the independent stores, our national chains reluctantly gave the book a brief trial. On June 2, 1985, the impossible happened, and The Joy of Stress appeared on the national bestseller list, at number 10.

By the end of the summer, it had risen to number one, bumping Iacocca off the top spot. It stayed in that position for a further 11 weeks, and on the list for a total of 69 consecutive weeks. Sales soared to record levels, both in Canada (where sales have passed 200,000 and continue at the rate of 1,000 per week after four years) and around the world, proving to the skeptics that stress, after all, can be the best ally in the workplace - if it is correctly managed.

Since the book was released, I began to do extensive speaking engagements with corporations, associations of professionals or independent business operators, and government departments in Europe, the U.S., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Audiences have ranged in size from 10 to 5,000 people at a time, and before each address extensive research into the stresses facing the audiences was undertaken. As a result, I had the good fortune to broaden my patient base to encompass the stresses of people in all lines of work, all around the world.

When it comes to stress, the whole world agrees, work is the cause of most of it. Stress at work can manifest itself in a number of ways:

Too much work, as is often the case around the time of a merger or acquisition, or with the self-employed.

Too little work, as in the case of a plant closing or layoff.

Poor direction at work, as seen with those working for a bad boss.

The right job, but pursued with workaholic fervor, leading to eventual breakdown of health, spirit, or personal relationships.

The good job, but too little time to constantly update one's technological skills to stay ahead of the ever-changing competition.

The special pressures of women in the workplace, and, in particular, of single parents.

The exhausting problems of travel on the job, and the arduous task of digging out from under the "in" basket after one returns.

The inability to relax, or to focus on outside activities during off-work hours.

The growing presence of substance abuse in the workplace.

Workers today have never been more frustrated. If they do their job badly, their company will probably be taken over by a foreign conglomerate. If they do their job well, their company will definitely be taken over by a foreign conglomerate.


Authors, lecturers, dieticians, psychologists, medical researchers, surgeons, homeopaths, hypnotists, televangelists, vitamin hucksters, and charlatans are falling all over themselves to sell their solutions to the confused public. But it falls to the low- tech family doctor to help an individual patient see his or her stresses in the context of the whole body, and to sort out the good advice from the bad.

It is my mission to bring my perspectives, observations, and specific remedies for handling stress at work to each of you, as I did for my individual patients, in a practical and entertaining form. The stress you face at work will not go away, but if you follow my action tips you will be able to use that stress to bring out your own excellence.

Those of you who think you have no stress at work may not need my advice, but you do need to see your doctor - chances are you are either suffering a delusion or, if you truly don't have any stress, are moribund. For the rest of you who recognize stress as a permanent companion at work, read on.

Unrelenting stress can cause problems

Stress is something you probably can't avoid in your life but it doesn't always have to be such a bad thing. Certain stresses can have a very positive affect or a very negative affect.

Stress may be the sense of concentration you feel when faced with a new challenge or it may be the vague sense of anxiety you feel after one of those days that can leave you frazzled.

Positive stress can help you reach peak efficiency by increasing concentration, focus, and performance. That is why many people do their best work when under pressure.

But after the challenge has been met, they take the time to relax and enjoy their achievements. Along with giving them a sense of accomplishment, this relaxation response allows them to build up the physical and emotional reserves to meet the next challenge, and is one of the key elements of positive stress.

Stress becomes negative when you stay "wound up" and don't, or can't relax after meeting the challenge. Unfortunately, when stress becomes an ongoing part of your life, your health and well-being can suffer.

Negative stress has been linked with many physical ailments from tension headaches to heart attacks. Fortunately, you do have some say in the matter and, y learning to manage the stress in your life, you can avoid putting your health at risk.

The first step to managing stress is awareness of the things that make you feel stressed and of the way you feel under tress. Listen to your body for signs such as headaches, stomach upsets, tensed muscles, clenched teeth, cold or clammy hands or any other symptoms that tell you you're under stress.

You can break the cycle of negative stress by learning ways to help you relax. By taking the time to practice simple relaxation techniques on a regular basis, you can give yourself a chance to unwind and get ready for life's next challenge.

A positive attitude and lifestyle are key elements in stress management. Since stress is both an emotional and physical reaction to change, the better you feel, in body and mind, the better you'll be able to deal with the stress in your life. In order to properly take care of yourself you need to thing positively, exercise, ear well, and rest regularly.

How your body reacts to stress is the same whether you are experiencing positive or negative stress. The problem with negative stress is your response is stuck in the "on" position and you can't turn it off.

With negative stress, there is true relaxation between one stress crisis and the next, resulting in physical and emotional strain. Smoking, using drugs, or drinking alcohol do not relieve stress - they only add to the problem. Remember that you can stop the cycle of negative stress by becoming aware of what causes your stress, by practicing relaxation techniques that you can ask your health care provider about, and developing a positive attitude and lifestyle.

When one aspect of your life changes (positively or negatively), do what you can to limit other changes. If you have become a new parent or started a new job, for example, make an effort to continue doing the things that bring you pleasure. Don't change your entire lifestyle just because one of the variables is different.

It's time to take a break when your stress reached the "I can't cope" level. Sometimes you need to step back from your problems to figure out how to deal with them effectively. Take a few minutes by yourself to calm down. Sit down, relax, and decide what needs to be done immediately, and what can wait until later. Take it one step at a time.

Sometimes, when things get to be a little too much, you may need to talk to someone. Airing your feelings to family and friends is often the best medicine.

If you feel overwhelmed, as if there is "no way out", seek out professional help.

You can start with your doctor who can rule out any physical problems and can refer you to a professional counselor if necessary. Always remember, even when you feel helpless, help is available.