Stress is different from being busy or working hard. The primary contributor to work-related stress is lack of control over your work. It’s true that a large quantity of work can contribute to stress, but if you feel confident that you can do it well and on time, you won’t feel very stressed.
The high level of autonomy that tenured academics enjoy should mean they have less stress than people in other occupations. On the other hand, being in insecure employment is a huge contributor to stress so sessional professors – who have much less autonomy than tenured profs — probably feel a great deal of stress.
Symptoms of stress can be cognitive (difficulty concentrating, memory problems), emotional (agitation, feeling low), physical (digestive issues, frequent colds), or behavioural (sleeping more or less than usual, change in eating habits). The symptoms include seeing only the negative, constant worrying, poor judgment and a sense of isolation.
How you as an academic manage stress will be very different for those who are tenured, on the tenure-track or on a limited term contract and of course those who are graduate students or postdocs.
But whoever you are, the keys to managing stress are universal and are found in the opening lines of a prayer (sometimes known as the serenity prayer) by Reinhold Niebuhr: accepting the things you cannot change, having the courage to change the things you can, and knowing the difference between the two.
Identify what you can control
What you can control includes all those things where you have the autonomy to decide and act on independently, or which you can ask someone else to change, perhaps using recognized processes within your institution.
Developing a personal support “team” of colleagues, friends and mentors, inside and outside your department and institution, means you have people who can help you put things in perspective and navigate the sometimes tricky politics. Your university may have administrative units that can offer information or support, as can the association or union, if you belong to one. Knowing the rules that govern your employment helps give you the courage to change what you can.
Anyone who increases your stress and feeling of powerlessness is not helping. Avoid pessimists and beware of rumour mongers and bullies, and try to evaluate information the same way you would for your research and teaching:
- How does this person know what they claim to know?
- If they claim experience, do they have specific examples to illustrate their points?
- Have they been in a position to make the kinds of decisions (hiring, tenure, promotion) that they are telling you about?
- Is there an alternative perspective?
Write it all down
Writing everything down allows you to consciously make decisions about what to work on. It gives you a context in which to make decisions – for example, what it will cost in time and resources to make that lecture better compared with doing something else on the list. Although it may seem that a long list will be overwhelming and a source of stress, not writing the list actually causes more stress. If you haven’t written everything down, you spend a lot of energy making sure you don’t forget something important, leading to anxiety and difficulty concentrating.
Once you have a better sense of what you do have control over, you need to exert some control to change the way you feel. With a comprehensive list, you can set priorities and tackle the work based on those priorities. For example, you can renegotiate commitments if necessary. You can respond to requests for new commitments knowing whether you have time to do it well. You can allocate blocks of time in your calendar to work on specific types of work.
When you respond, make it a conscious decision. Ask yourself whether the task is in line with the priorities you have set. Do you have the resources (time, energy) to do it well? And, does it help move towards your goals? Knowing where you want to focus your energy will make it easier (though never easy) to say no to requests that will increase your stress. This includes requests from yourself to do things to a higher standard.
Make sure your list includes more than just work tasks. Looking after yourself physically, spiritually and emotionally will allow you to work more effectively and efficiently as well as to manage stress better.
One of the biggest challenges you will face as you try to make your life less stressful is your own innate resistance to having a less stressful life. Focus on working hard on important things. Then stop. Rest. Recharge your batteries.
None of this is easy and it won’t happen overnight. But all of it is possible.
Jo VanEvery, a private career coach, has a PhD in sociology from the University of Essex and was formerly a program officer at the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. Read her own blog at http://www.jovanevery.ca/.