Do you have sleepless nights worrying about experiments not working and your contract finishing soon? Do you feel that tightening in the stomach because you have an unresolved conflict at work? Are you stressed out because there’s a grant deadline is looming and there is still so much to do? And how about that conference talk coming up: are you excited – but also anxious?
As a postdoc you are used to stress in a range of situations and the inherent insecurity of your position can often make seemingly minor hiccups seem more stressful. When extreme, this stress can lead to ‘overwhelm’, affect your performance and eventually damage both your physical and mental health.
On the other hand, stress of a kind felt before an important presentation can help you perform at your best. So, can you manage your stress so that it is good for you?
A recent article in the Wall Street Journal titled “Turn Bad Stress Into Good” canvasses some very good ideas. The author, Sue Shellenberger, says that “with the right mental approach (and boss) it’s possible to harness the energy of stress to further your goal”.
The holy grail is to harness the boost you get from stress for your performance but prevent it from tipping over into anxiety, where it is detrimental. One of the keys to shifting the balance to your advantage appears to be mindset. The way you view and approach stress shifts the way it affects you – to a point. Also essential are gaining control over job demands, doing something that is truly important to you and receiving support and encouragement from those around you.
The test suggested in the WSJ article is a handy indicator of where you currently are with your ‘good stress’ levels:
For each question assign a value: +2 (strongly agree); +1 (agree); -1 (disagree to some extent); -2 (strongly disagree).
- I have control over how and when I do my work
- I receive support and encouragement from my supervisor and colleagues
- My work lends meaning and purpose to my life
- Stress can help me learn and grow
- I often perform better under stress
- Stress can be healthy and energizing
- My supervisor doesn’t try to micromanage me or my work
- I’m treated fairly and without prejudice at work
- My job makes me feel hopeful about the future
Add up all your scores. A positive combined score indicates you are in good-stress territory and are likely to benefit from the stress at work.
How did you go? Does your current situation allow you to turn your stress into ‘good stress’? Let’s look at these questions in detail and what you could do about these stressors.
If you disagreed with statements 4, 5 and 6 then you are likely to view stress itself as a negative. This may be perfectly understandable if you are still recovering from a recent stressful experience, such as a traumatic finish to your PhD, and really just want to sit under a palm tree for a month and catch your breath. If you find that your negative attitude to stress persists, however, you might want to consider stress management training or coaching to help you learn to harness the positive aspects. Finding out how others deal with stress also often helps us to develop our own strategies to manage it.
Having control over your own situation and a generally positive and supportive work environment is a large component of maintaining a ‘good stress’ environment. If you scored low in some or all of the questions 1, 2, 3, 7 or 8 then there are a few ways to help make stress more manageable.
- Do people actually know you would like help or support? Many postdocs assume that asking for help or support may be interpreted as weakness. You may be surprised by the willingness of your supervisor and colleagues to support you once you ask for it.
- Lack of control and feeling untrusted or micro-managed may be a temporary situation, for example if you have just changed your job and are entering a new field. Do your more established colleagues work independently and is the atmosphere in the group generally good and collegial? If this is the case you may just have to be a little patient until you have proved yourself.
- Finally, there are work environments that are simply bad for you. If you score low in most of the questions on work environment you might have ended up in a group that does not work for you, is excessively competitive or ‘toxic’, as described in this article. If this is the case, your best opinion may well be to cut your losses and move on with your work and life before you sustain any lasting damage.
If you had a negative score for statement 9, ‘My job makes me feel hopeful about the future’ you are not alone! Job security (or lack of it) is the number one source of anxiety I hear from postdocs. But how do you deal with this stressor?
This is a complex area where your appetite for risk, personal situation (e.g. children, mortgage) and willingness to put up with insecurity means everyone deals with it differently. This is where the ‘sleep at night’ factor becomes a good measure of how manageable this stressor is for you. If it is a worry that frequently keeps you awake, then you may want to start researching career options that provide more security. If lack of security does not affect you negatively, then continuing on your current path may be the right decision for you.
Above all, it is your life and your career, and taking steps to maintain ‘good stress’ levels is likely to help you excel at anything you decide to do.