A psychological analysis of office stress

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A psychological analysis of office stress
for Canon Europe

by Lucy Beresford

Pointless meetings, rudeness, and equipment malfunctions: working in an office is incredibly stressful. Psychotherapist Lucy Beresford analyses what’s happening to the psyche of the average office employee.

Office life is increasingly frustrating; only 5% of people say that nothing at work makesthem angry. We hate: wasting time in pointless or long meetings; the photocopier jamming; people being rude to us; and feeling unsupported. No wonder we lose our rag. 83% of us have seen a colleague lose their temper at work; 63% have lost our temper; and more than 50% have lost our tempers more than once. Without question, the office is a place of High Expressed Emotion (characterised bynegativity, over-involvement, and criticism).

The trends and psychological causes

Out of Control!

Human beings prefer to be in control. As children, we grow up believing that we are the centre of the world, that we control it, and that everyone or everything else (our ‘objects’) dance to our tune. Over time we learn that this belief is a delusion, and we have to learn to accept not being incontrol. But the older we get, the more we like to pretend to ourselves that we could still be in control, as a way of returning to those idyllic days of childhood when we (wrongly) thought we were omnipotent.

Most stressful situations are doubly so for us because subconsciously they reinforce something we don’t want to acknowledge: that we are not in control. This frustration is humiliating for us,and our rage is our inner child stamping its foot when life doesn’t go our way. Significantly, of the 1,857 people who responded to the research, 88% were middle management and below. These people do not feel in control of their work lives.

One problem with office life is that we are part of a group, and therefore we must cope with competing and conflicting demands. The group is united inworking for the same company, but at the same time we are individuals competing for time, resources, and possibly promotion and/or bonuses. Another is that we are reliant on other members of the group, on equipment, or on information coming from outside, influencing whether or not we have a stressful day.

Not another meeting…
Lengthy or pointless meetings (50%) make us angry because they remind ussubconsciously that we are not in control of our time, something employees value very highly; the only person happy with such a meeting will be the person who called it. We dislike meetings which are either autocratic, or those with no structure. Human beings like clarity, and we possess an innate sense of fairness. It annoys us when one or both of these is tampered with.

Tension v. contentmentFreud said that we spend our lives trying to eliminate tension or discomfort and restore a feeling of contentment/stasis: when we feel hungry, we will focus all our energy on eliminating that nasty feeling of hunger. Babies cry when they are in discomfort (hunger, soiled nappy, cold). Adult office workers are no different. In an office, we become to some extent infantalised (we give overcertain aspects of our decision making processes to ‘the boss,’ or ‘the company’) and yet we remain highly sensitive to things which disturb our equilibrium. This could be the overuse of emails (14%), colleagues not switching their mobile to silent (22%), a messy kitchen (16%), or having the wrong office temperature (37%).

Significantly, whilst pointless/long meetings was the most common grievance,we get more angry when people are uncivil or talk down to us (21%). Deep down we all have unspoken boundaries about what constitutes acceptable behaviour. In groups, people want individual needs to be suppressed for the good of the group, and for everyone in a group to get along. Unfortunately, this conflicts with our instinct for survival, which means getting our needs met or our views heard...
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