Chronic Career Stress: What It Looks like and What to Do about It

By LaBeau, Joseph | Public Management, November 2003 | Go to article overview

Chronic Career Stress: What It Looks like and What to Do about It


LaBeau, Joseph, Public Management


For the past several years, in addition to being a city manager, I have shared my counseling training with local government managers and their staff members to help them manage job stresses. I have held training sessions on how to manage stress reactions, how to find some measure of relief from tension and anxiety, and how to toughen up psychologically and be less susceptible to those workplace hassles that unnerve and undo even the best of us. After the formal portion of the workshops, people seem to want to talk, and I listen to lots of stories about career government service.

Some are inspirational. All too often, though, the stories I hear are heartrending and humbling. So many people really do love to serve the public. Yet so many also persevere in terribly distressing work circumstances. These people are enmeshed in a long-term work situation that is toxic or even deadly. Some of these good people recognize the connection between their work and their unhappiness. Some don't. Yet they all continue to serve.

A few are in a category that I would call "the worst of the worst." They continue a daily travail that has fractured their self-confidence, contorted their work relationships, and distressed their families. They are truly the walking wounded.

Other folks just say they feel tired all the time. They seem to know only that they are not themselves anymore. During some of my workshops, we talk about moments of joy at work. When we do, these people look like they are watching the discussion through binoculars. Afterward, they talk vaguely about their haunting sense that something is lost in the one-third of their life spent at work.

Still other people carry big buckets of anger around. For them, the image they see in the mirror of the workshop is frightening. They are startled to see just how furious they are and what that seething pot of rage is doing to them.

Almost all of these people, especially the angry ones, have an unspoken belief that someone or something always has been out to get them. There is more truth to this than they realize, but the belief, as they hold it, amounts to a curse.

In this article, the development of chronic unhappiness at work is discussed. My goal is to help chronic stress sufferers understand the cloud that follows them around and to know how to find the sunshine again.

Your Career Identity

To begin to truly explain long-term stress, we must concentrate on a different concern from your day-to-day or even month-to-month pressures. We also have to look beyond the physical symptoms of stress, which are the normal focus of educational articles and workshops. To get a real sense of what is going on, we need to go to the beginning, when a person first steps out into his or her professional field of choice.

The first important fact to know is that career selection and all other major career choices result in what counselors call a career identity. Like a personal identity, career identity grows as the person matures and gains more and more knowledge of who he or she is professionally. An entry-level worker, for example, has a career identity that is largely defined by basic job interests and fantasies of career success.

As this person enters actual service, she begins to define her professional self more and more accurately in terms of professional competence and opportunities for development. She begins to recognize her place in the labor market and learns how people in her occupation can advance and accomplish something worthy. She begins to know her professional style.

That is, she begins to know what aspects of the job she excels in and which aspects are struggles. She also develops a professional/social understanding of what her relationship is to her peers, her community, and her profession in general. Is she the up-and-coming star? At professional conferences, is she the one speaking or the one playing hooky? …

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Chronic Career Stress: What It Looks like and What to Do about It
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