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Workplace Stress: How Social Workers Can Help Prevent Clients From Making Bad Decisions
By Lindsey Getz

The recent JetBlue incident is a testament to the stress in today’s workplace. Here’s how social workers can help.

Earlier this year the name Steven Slater wouldn’t have meant anything to the general public. Even if you happened to be someone who flew on a JetBlue plane with him in the past, you likely wouldn’t find him particularly memorable. That’s because until recently, Slater had done his job like any other JetBlue flight attendant. But on August 10, everything changed.

After getting into a dispute with a passenger, Slater cursed her over the intercom, grabbed two beers, and made a dramatic exit down the plane’s emergency chute. Workplace stress had overwhelmed him and as a result, he made a bad decision, says Dick Thompson, PhD, president and CEO of High Performing Systems, Inc and author of The Stress Effect. While many in the workplace are also under serious strain, there are better ways to cope.

Getting to the Breaking Point
In a time when the unemployment rate continues to climb and so many people are desperate for work, quitting any job seems not only foolish but ungrateful. However, the state of the economy has also put workplace stress at an all-time high, with many Americans doing more work for less pay. Slater’s declaration that he’d had enough made him an instant folk hero in the eyes of many who only dream of the doing the same. It all seems glamorous from the outside, but Slater will likely deal with some serious consequences. Instead of daydreaming about quitting, those in the working world must focus on coping with increased stress—and that’s where social workers can help.

It’s important to understand how clients reach the breaking point. “What I’ve found over the years is that as stress levels rise, chemicals are released into the brain which can impact two main areas: the prefrontal cortex, where decisions are made, and the amygdale, which is the emotional system,” explains Thompson. “So the ability to use logic and reason decrease as the stress level increases.”

Add in the fact that stress is something that builds, and it starts to formulate a recipe for trouble. “You get stuck in traffic on the way to work, your stress goes up,” says Thompson. “Once you get to work, you realize you forgot your notes and need to give a presentation. That new stress gets added to the traffic stress. You get bad feedback on the presentation and it continues to build. The stress can get to a dangerous level where your emotions take over and are controlling your decisions. That’s what happened with Slater.”

“What Slater did, was have an impulsive, primitive reaction to an accumulation of stress, frustration, and anger,” says Jonathan Berent, LCSW, ACSW, coauthor of Work Makes Me Nervous: Overcome Anxiety and Build the Confidence to Succeed. “The week before that happened, a man in Connecticut killed eight colleagues and then himself after being accused of stealing—obviously an even more extreme example of a bad decision—though the Slater incident actually got more press. But the point is that social workers are going to need to help people deal with this stuff and that means understanding what stress is and what the appropriate management strategy would be.”

Thompson says the key is building a more stress-resilient system. “You need to prevent that person from getting to the point where they want to go down the chute,” he says. “One thing is teaching the person to be more aware of the stress building—recognizing the symptoms and taking the time to stop and breathe. They need to get control before they make a bad decision. Take some tactical breaths where you inhale to the count of four, hold, and exhale. It helps calm the person down. Essentially it’s taking the time to let go of the emotional response and bring logic back into it.” 

Because stress builds, Thompson says it’s important to practice techniques that can keep it in check. “When we get stressed, it can take three to five hours just to get back down to the state we were in when we first encountered that stressor. That makes it important to practice techniques that can help calm things down faster. When the next stressor hits us, there’s not as much residual response left from the last one.”

Berent agrees that learning skills that help the someone relax are important but adds that to a person with an anxiety problem who struggles in the workplace, there’s a bigger challenge for the social worker. “When a person has an anxiety problem, it’s based on adrenaline—fight or flight,” he says. “That person believes adrenaline is the enemy and wants it to go away. They will avoid situations that cause adrenaline or take medication to repress it. But in the long run, that won’t work. The ultimate tip is what we refer to as the four step adrenaline control methodology.”

Steps to Better Stress Management
The following four-step system is something social workers can use with their clients. “Step 1 is realistic expectations,” says Berent. “When going into the situation, realize the adrenaline will be there. Step 2 is accepting the adrenaline. This is the hardest step. The person must accept it while also investing in the interpretation that adrenaline is a friend and a source of power. Step 3 is surfing the wave. Go with the wave of adrenaline. Step 4 is diaphragmatic breathing to enhance the process of surfing.”

It can be extremely challenging helping clients with anxiety to fully overcome it, and Berent says it requires diligence beyond the four-step system. “For one, doing some analytical work to learn how the person developed the negative association to adrenaline in the first place is important,” he adds.

Social workers should help their clients recognize that workplace stress is inevitable; there is no way to prevent stressors from occurring, so it’s a matter of learning to cope with them. In fact, Berent says, the reality is that today’s competition and pressure for productivity in the workplace will only breed even more pressure for performance—and that can create even morestress. “It’s a reality of the way things are,” he says. “If people are going to do well at their job, it’s a matter of learning to survive in this environment.”

Also, teaching that stress isn’t something to run from, be embarrassed about, or even avoid can help clients deal with the situation head on. “About 25 years ago, I met with a human resource manager to talk about doing a stress management workshop and the guy told me ‘There’s no stress here,’” recalls Berent. “Making stress into a bad word with no functional approach is not the solution. It’s about recognizing that everybody has stress; how they deal with it is what counts.”

While many have fantasized about a dramatic job exit—telling off the boss, deleting important files, or simply storming out—Thompson says in reality, many get close to the edge but are able to prevent themselves from going over. “They are able to engage their prefrontal cortex and bring logic into the situation,” he says. “Whatever the logic is—maybe it’s that they have a family to support and can’t quit their job—it’s able to help prevent emotions from taking over and allows them to make better decisions.”

— Lindsey Getz is a freelance writer based in Royersford, PA.