Workplace stress is unavoidable, of course, but for many Americans it’s become a chronic issue. According to the APA’s studies on Stress in the Workplace, 65 percent of U.S. employees cite work as a significant source of stress with many complaining of constant stress at work.
“More than one third of U.S. workers feel chronically stressed out during the day,” said David Ballard, Psy.D, director of APA’s Center for Organizational Excellence, and an in-house expert on work-related issues.
One would think that with all the knowledge and tools at hand, psychologists and their practices would avoid most of the obvious pitfalls for workplace stress. That is not always the case, however.
“There are some unique aspects for psychologists when it comes to workplace stress,” said Ballard, “and there are overarching work stress issues common to all professions as well.”
Constant changes to the health care system and sinking reimbursement rates can be a major source of aggravation, he added, noting that, in many cases, therapists can spend more time dealing with administrative tasks than with the mental health care they were trained to do.
Plus, because of the higher level of emotional engagement required by therapists, the levels of burnout in the profession can be higher.
Burnout can disguise itself in devious ways, Ballard explained, and it is important to recognize the signs.
“Start out with a good sense of self-awareness of your own stress levels,” Ballard said. “Understanding what stresses you out and identifying your symptoms is key.
Some people may have headaches or a lack of energy, while others may find themselves getting into interpersonal conflicts or having difficulty making decisions.”
How one deals with stress is the main issue. Beyond basic self-care of exercise, good diet, and sleep, what else can a therapist do?
It can take constant diligence and stepping back to look at the big picture to keep both one’s own schedule under control and to make sure that the entire practice adheres to low stress guidelines.
“I think it’s been important for me to remember to always practice what I preach,” said John Agee, Ph.D, clinical psychologist and owner of The Gardiner Center for Stress Management in Gardiner, Me.
“We are always telling our clients that they need to be mindful throughout each day, even at a traffic light, and we need to do those things, too.”
The bigger picture view helps keep things running more smoothly, Agee said.
“For me, I went into private practice so I could have a flexible schedule, take a walk in the sunshine so to speak,” he said. “It is so important to keep remembering to use that flexibility and to encourage my staff and colleagues to do the same.”
Outsource administrative tasks and avoid booking clients one after another, he said, to reduce emotional exhaustion at the end of the day.
Keep “play time” as part of your life: going for a run, taking a yoga class, heading out to a wine tasting or a movie, or even curling up with a good book.
And then there is the elephant in the room… or rather the small handheld computer … that we all know brings more stress into our lives but is very difficult to put down.
The cell phone that we carry with us may seem like a life saver but it has raised stress levels over the past two decades.
“There is an increased expectation to be available at all times,” said Agee.
Taking a technology break during meals or a long walk works wonders with reducing stress. It may be counter-productive to do it for too long since catching up on missed calls and emails can bring on more stress, but short, definitive breaks added to each day allow the brain a chance to disconnect and regenerate a bit.
With staff, make sure to have a supportive environment where employees feel they are being heard, paid fairly, and able to enjoy their own lives outside of the office.
Hire for “good fit,” Ballard said, be sure to offer training opportunities, provide both guidance and autonomy and ensure proper mental health support for staff.
Perhaps the biggest tool for creating a low-stress workplace environment, of course, is reducing stress at the top.
A crazed, erratic boss raises the stress level for everyone else. So, when taking time off to “walk in the sunshine” seems like a waste of time, think of it as an investment in the overall health and well-being of your practice.