6 UNsurprising sources of stress

Recently, the Washington Post published an article by Erinn Bucklan on 6 Surprising Sources of Stress – and how to do away with them. I think the word “surprising” must have been added for the sake of alliteration in the title rather than its meaning. There is nothing surprising about this list except that it’s only six items. In the article itself the author use a scientific publication for each item to bolster her arguments – which is a good start. I decided to take a closer look at a couple of them to see if I could round it out a bit.

Top of the list was clutter…I’ll pause while you get over your surprise. Barring those with mental illness (as anyone who has watched an episode of Hoarders knows), no one like clutter. A friend of mind used to say all the time, “messy room, messy mind.” But the jury isn’t out on what this means for workplace productivity. While some evidence suggests clutter can reduce your ability to focus (McMains and Kastner 2011, J. Neurosci), others show that one person’s “clutter” is another’s meaningful and comforting display of self-expression…like your workplace binky. Allowing meaningful personal displays has been shown to increase job satisfaction (Wells 2000, J. Env Psych). I’ve struggled with finding the right balance on my desk. Too tidy and I feel like it’s someone else’s desk. Too messy and I want it to be someone else’s desk. Your office (whether it’s 2 feet of lab bench space or the corner office) is your place, your territory. You have to make it your own to feel comfortable to do good work. Heck, even when I go to the library I make myself at home, so to speak, by spreading out my stuff. I think this is a case of confusing the consequence with the cause. The clutter comes from all the stressful work you are doing. Clearing the clutter may help set the stage, but it won’t empty your inbox or get your papers submitted.

Next was working with high strung people. That can be stressful? Shocker. I didn’t look into the literature for this one much, but I do wonder if the “empathic stress” that comes from working alongside stressball coworkers is as important as the stress that comes from the inevitable conflicts that arise while working with said coworkers. The other thing this made me think of was schadenfreude. According to Avenue Q, this is defined as happiness at the misfortune of others. Like the study cited for this list item, it’s German. Maybe I am a terrible person, but sometimes when I was in the muck and mire of graduate school, seeing my fellow graduate students become unhinged with stress from classes, quals, or just life in general had a positive effect on me. It didn’t necessarily make me less stressed, but it didn’t make me more stressed. More often than not, it gave me perspective. I could say to myself – woah – is that what I am like? I need to take it down a notch and stop taking everything so seriously! Time for a massage (sidebar – I desperately miss the massage places in Buford Highway. Where else can you get a 1 hour foot massage for $20!)

Apparently, being “too composed” can be stressful. The author recommends sharing your feelings with of anxiety or stress with your colleagues or superiors can improve your mood. Should you really be sharing your feelings with your boss? According to research, it depends on the feelings. Several studies have shown that men who express anger at work are conferred a higher status than men who express sadness. It gets even worse for women though. The chairman of the Republican National Committee asserted that Senator Hillary Clinton was too angry to be elected president (Nagourney, 2006). Expressing anger can hurt women’s chances in the workplace – more-so than it does for men (Buscholl & Ulhmann 2008, Psch. Sci).

I wish I had time for more today, but Miles has made a tunnel and he insists that I play too.



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