Curbing Stress at Work
Young Akira was in charge of going to collect the fresh water that they drank in the school house of Master Oé. Every morning he would walk down to the delicious spring at the foot of the hill, 20 minutes away. For his task he had two large earthenware pots that kept the water cool all day. The two vessels hung, one at each end, from a stout cane placed across his shoulders, thus enabling him to carry 13 or 14 litres without too much effort.
One of the pots, however, was cracked, and some of the water always leaked out, so by the end of his journey only half of the contents remained.
This had been going on for the last two years. Akira would set off early for the spring, would fill the two vessels and would return with only one-and-a-half potfuls of water. The perfect pot was very proud of its achievements. All that time it had carried its full capacity of water. But the cracked pot was sad and ashamed at its own imperfection, aware that it only managed to accomplish half of the purpose for which it had been crafted.
After those two years of work, the cracked pot could take it no longer and raised its voice, saying:
‘I feel so ashamed!’
Akira turned his head to the left, saw the poor pot moaning, and asked:
‘Ashamed about what, my friend?’
‘Throughout all this time I have been unable to hold all the water until we reach the master’s house. What a waste! It is my fault that part of your work has been wasted,’ complained the pot.
Akira smiled kindly and said:
‘Do not say that. We will reach the spring now and I will fill you both with water, and then, on the way back home, I want you to look around and see how beautiful the path is.’
When they got to the spring, the pot let the boy fill it with water and, when it was raised on Akira’s shoulders, began to look around, as it had been told.
‘The path is lovely,’ said the pot.
‘I think so, too. Can you see the beautiful flowers lining the ditch?’ Akira asked.
‘Oh, they are exquisite!’ exclaimed the pot.
‘Have you noticed that there are only flowers on this side of the path? In these two years I have planted seeds on this side because I knew the flowers would grow there thanks to the water that you spilled every day,’ said the youth.
‘Is that true?’ asked the pot, quite moved.
‘Yes. Thanks to that, during this time I have been able to enjoy these flowers on my morning walks, and not only that, but I have also been able to decorate the master’s table with flowers. My dear friend, if you were not as you are, neither Master Oé nor I would have been able to enjoy all this beauty as we have!’
This ancient Japanese tale teaches us a Buddhist lesson about the correct attitude towards one’s faults and failings.
And this teaching holds the key to curbing stress at work and in life, although I warn you that it is a somewhat strange lesson for our western mentality. We have to open up our minds, because this is a real mental challenge for our easy-living neurons.
The fact is that stress is caused by our fear of not being able to live up to certain expectations and these are, of course, created by ourselves: ‘It’ll be dreadful if I don’t finish the report in time! I can’t let that happen!’ When we get stressed, we are like Akira’s pot that cannot bear its defects. We are afraid we are less capable, less worthy than others. Nowadays there is more stress than ever before, to the extent that 80 per cent of adults declare they are stressed, and all this is a symptom of our becoming increasingly self-demanding. But, as we shall see in this chapter, we can all escape from this source of misery by improving our way of reasoning. Can you imagine a world where there is no stress but only your capacity to enjoy what you do, at your own pace, doing everything cheerfully and affectionately? You’re about to find out how to make it come true.
IS MORE ALWAYS BETTER?
Our first effort will be to revise the concept of efficiency or, rather, to topple the myth of efficiency that is so prevalent these days. If we can oust this irrational idea we will alleviate most of our self-imposed pressure at work.
We live in the opulent society. We have everything, and plenty of it. Are we aware of that?
Twenty years ago I spent three weeks in Cuba. The island was going through a period of straitened economic circumstances; this was the first ‘special period’, as Fidel Castro’s government called it, and I was appalled at the shortages the Cuban people were suffering. But the culture shock was even greater on my return to Spain. Having become accustomed to scarcity during the three weeks I was in Cuba, when I got back to Spain I was surprised at how many things are available to us here.
As soon as we landed I remember thinking: ‘Wow, if I want to I can go to the airport bar and order 50 beers!’ There are so many places in the world where there is simply no beer, no sausages, no fresh bread… When you live in a place like that and then you do find those things, you really appreciate them.
It’s a different matter in Europe and the United States, where more and more things have become available to us. Material progress has advanced and offers us inexhaustible opportunities for consumption. This all began some time in the 1960s with the arrival of supermarkets, places where you could super-buy. In the 1970s the concept of disposability came along. In the 1980s it was mass leisure, trips around the world and ‘quality of life’ represented by having a second residence. The 1990s put physical beauty and surgical youthfulness on the market. In the 2000s it was constant global communication and knowledge, and the possibility of raising everything to the power of three through property speculation. And now I believe we’re approaching a time when we’ll be able to buy genetically engineered immortality, based on stem-cell and other super-high-tech methods. Progress, full speed ahead!
Yet despite all these ‘advances’ there are signs of a galloping regression in our actual well-being, one of the principal signs of which is emotional distress. It is significant that rates of depression, anxiety and suicide are constantly on the increase.
I could devote a whole chapter to indicators, but I will restrict them to a few, to avoid overwhelming you with figures. All the statistics quoted below are taken from reliable sources such as the Instituto Nacional de Estadística (Spain’s National Statistics Institute), the Ministerio de Sanidad y Consumo (Spain’s Ministry of Health and Consumer Affairs) and the World Health Organization.
• In the 1950s fewer than 1 per cent of people in developed countries had depression. At present, that figure has risen to 15 percent (for Europe and the USA jointly).
• Since 1982, the depression rate in Spain has doubled, from 7 per cent of the population to 14 per cent.
• The total consumption of anti-depressants in Spain increased by 107 per cent over the period 1997 to 2002.
• In the 1980s, the number of deaths by suicide and mental illness in Spain was fewer than one thousand per year. By 2008, the reported figure had risen to 13,000 (and the actual total may be much higher).
We have more and more stuff, but are we happier? Judging by these figures, apparently not. However, the society we live in is intent on selling us the idea that the correct evolution of life is to obtain more and better means, opportunities, comforts…
‘More is better’ is what we’re told. Rather like the meals they serve in many restaurants in the United States: enormous, inhuman portions, at super-affordable prices. Even if you cannot eat it all, a mountain of fresh salad for seven dollars has become synonymous with pleasure.
We nearly all realize that something is wrong, and we agree that we ought to consume less. But what we do not see quite so clearly is that the trap is far more insidious and rooted in our fetishistic worship of efficiency.
After all, who doesn’t believe in the god of efficiency? Having the trains always running on time is marvellous. So is having our cities spotlessly clean. And on and on it goes, ad infinitum. The more efficiency, the better. Right?
I don’t think so. As we shall see in this chapter, efficiency is just like all other assets: it has its limits. A little efficiency is good. Too much will send us all round the bend.
TAKE PRIDE IN YOUR FALLIBILITY
Perhaps we should ask ourselves: why is it that in paradises of efficiency, such as Germany or Japan, people are not happier? Why is it that in the tranquil tribal villages of the Amazon there is no such thing as depression or anxiety?
Because, to reap the benefits of efficiency we need the people who deliver these benefits to be reliable and punctual! And to be so even though it may be unnatural for them.
That is to say, one of the most prized features of modern life is that it enables us all to be very efficient. Not only do the products on sale have to be shiny bright, functional and well packaged, but we have to be so, too. But does this really make us happier, or does it instead make us place absurd, distressing demands on ourselves?
More and more intellectuals – economists, sociologists and such like – are beginning to affirm that we do not need all these labour-saving apps and devices, nor do we need personally to be so efficient. Some efficiency is OK, but too much is exhausting and maddening.
Faced with so many irrational demands and so much pressure to excel, the best way for us to remain emotionally healthy is to immediately lower the pace of those demands and learn to accept ourselves and our limitations.
To do this, I recommend working on gaining what I call ‘fallibility pride’. That means telling yourself: ‘I accept myself with my faults and limitations and, better still, I understand that this acceptance makes me a better person because I am ridding my life of demands and my example serves to calm the world.’
Yes, the world we live in has become super-demanding. At the planetary level our increasing demand for consumer goods is endangering our survival as a species. And at the personal level we are more demanding of ourselves, too, in terms of our skills and attributes: we want to be good-looking, athletic, intelligent, shrewd in business, excellent as a parent… These are obviously positive traits, but it is when we turn them into inalienable demands that psychological problems – tension, stress and so on – start to appear, and a significant source of that stress is the pressure we put on ourselves to do things well.
Let’s think it through; our planet does not need us to do things well. If anything, it needs us to stop pillaging the environment. Doing everything well does not make much sense in an imperfect Nature. The normal thing would be to do some things well and others not so well, and to have fun in the process. Why would we want to do ‘everything’ well? Merely to be bigger, better predators of our environment.
Hence my proposal of pride in our fallibility, the ability to accept that we often make mistakes and that it’s all right.
Many people find it easier to understand this concept when it is presented as follows: if there is anything of true value in our nature it is our capacity to love. Our material achievements and aspirations do not bring much happiness to those around us when compared with the effect of our love on the people we are close to. So, let’s attach more importance to our capacity for love than to our other skills. The other stuff doesn’t really matter.
The following personal anecdote illustrates the concept of pride in fallibility.
I was once giving a course in psychology to a group of doctors. It was a five-day course in two-hour sessions. It was a Wednesday, and I had just one final session to give the following day. That day I got home late after a long day at my practice, and I saw there was a message on the answering machine. It was from Ramón, the director of the medical centre where I was delivering the course.
‘Good evening, Rafael. I’m calling about the course. Everything is going very well, as usual, but some people have commented that the last session was a bit boring. As tomorrow is the last day, I wanted to ask if you could try to up the level a bit. I’ll be working at home tonight until eleven. Call me and we’ll talk it over. Otherwise, I’ll be at the office early tomorrow morning, at nine o’clock.’
I looked at the time Ramón had left me the message – 10 o’clock at night – and I couldn’t help but be astonished. I shook my head and smiled. Of course, I did not call him back. I had supper and went to bed.
The next day, I went to the medical centre at the usual time and finished the course as planned. It went very well.
Some days later I wrote an article on the anecdote. Ramón is a great doctor and a good manager. He is well known and liked by many in the healthcare sector in Barcelona but, like so many others, he gets stressed far too easily. And he gets stressed because he demands too much of himself. Of himself, of others and of the world.
I told this anecdote to some of my patients and one of them asked me:
‘And didn’t you take any notice of the director’s message? Didn’t you try to improve the class you were going to give the next day?’
‘Certainly not! That super-demand was one of Ramón’s neuroses that I didn’t necessarily have to agree with.’
The truth is, I thought the anecdote was funny because it illustrates how we make ourselves stressed.
I have a certain capacity for teaching and I do not intend to overwork myself at night in order to improve it. I try to contribute something positive with what I do and I like my pupils to be pleased with me, but I accept that sometimes they will not be.
Furthermore, I do not need to give classes in psychology or any other subject. If my pupils repeatedly give me a ‘fail’ grade, it will mean I am not much good at teaching and had better give it up. And that will be all right. Not being able to teach does not bother me because there must be something I am pretty good at and can enjoy doing.
Finally, the course ended and I was sent the evaluations of those who attended. All in all, they were very positive. So Ramón’s fear that I was not going to achieve the desired efficiency wasn’t even real!
DO WE HAVE TO WORK?
The world of employment is a particular focus for that absurd need we create for ourselves of being very efficient. In addition, we mistakenly think our job is extremely important, and that is simply not true. It is not even important for us.
Thinking that our job is essential – because we need it to make a living or to maintain a certain social status – takes us on a fast track to stress. That belief artificially adds an extra degree of pressure that destroys all possibility of our enjoying what we do.
Logical people work only for fun, for self-fulfilment, for enjoyment – and they hardly ever get stressed. They can do this because they hold the rational belief that nobody’s work is ever too important. They do not need it. It is simply another source of gratification.
Some of my patients are senior executives who are under a lot of stress, and their treatment involves a very interesting and educational debate along the line I have just been taking. When they adopt the rational belief that work is not vital to their existence, they relax and can begin to optimize their performance and enjoy what they do.
The principle underpinning this idea – which some consider radical – is that the only really important job is to get our daily food and drink. That is important because without it we would die, but everything else is superfluous. A paying job only gives us money with which to buy superfluous goods and services.
In our western society we are lucky to have enough to eat and drink. Every town in Spain has drinking water fountains that flow free of charge, and every day at closing time supermarkets, restaurants, bakeries, etc. throw away huge amounts of food that they have not been able to sell. It’s a sad but indisputable fact that in our affluent society we waste a great deal of food.
DON’T GET LEFT BEHIND: BUY NOW!
In our society there are certain groups interested in creating needs for us: the sellers of goods and their advertising agents. In fact, the marketing manuals used in universities openly teach business students how to create the need for a product.
If people believe that they absolutely must have a car, a detergent, a dress… they will do whatever is necessary in order to obtain it.
Let’s imagine a washing machine advertisement that says:
If you like, you can buy the Brand X washing machine. It washes very white and consumes very little electricity. Your present washing machine probably does a similar job, but this one has a few more advantages.
And now, another advertisement that says:
Still don’t have the Brand X washing machine? Hurry up and get it! It’s essential for your happiness! Everyone who’s anyone has it and is enjoying the incredible advantages it brings. Buy now, for that deep, long-lasting feeling of comfort and emotional well-being.
Marketers know that the second advertisement sells a lot more. Of course, they do not express it as nakedly as in these examples, but that is the message behind their advertising. The best ploy for making a sale is to associate happiness with comfort and comfort with the product in question.
In short, advertisers create artificial needs that can only be met by working – efficiently – and receiving a regular income.
I am not particularly against buying and selling. What I am saying is that these things are not necessary. We can enjoy them as added benefits, but not as indispensable necessities.
The problem arises when we come to believe that we absolutely must have those things and will do whatever it takes to get them, such as working in degrading, boring or stressful situations. We risk making ourselves stressed by exaggerating the importance of what we do and what we supposedly need in order to be happy.
For a long time now I have been suggesting to my patients that they consider work in this light, and a high percentage of them end up changing their way of working. They become more focused on enjoying work rather than on the results of their efforts. Every morning on the way to work they think about what they will do that day to learn more or improve. Human relationships begin to take on more relevance. And, above all, they stop worrying about whether they might get the sack. That change is fundamental, because unless we lose entirely our fear of being dismissed we will never be free to enjoy working.
THE EFFICIENCY OF ENJOYMENT
Another fundamental change that takes place when we develop a fully rational mindset at work is that we operate at our own, well-planned pace, without stress.
Some companies force their employees to work at too fast a pace. We have to say ‘no’! It is not worth working in unhealthy conditions. Remember that we do not need that job. A rational person works at an appropriate, enjoyable pace. If it turns out that the company is not happy with that, we will have to accept their decision to dispense with our services.
However, in practice, those who adopt this way of working often end up being the most highly valued in their company. Their gross productivity may not be as high as others’, but the quality of their work and their positivity soar way above everyone else’s. Bear in mind that companies value happy, motivated employees – companies that are worth working for, at least.
Our performance improves far more when we enjoy what we do than when we feel obliged to do it. To illustrate this point I usually bring up Mozart. We can ask ourselves: ‘Did Mozart become a wonderful composer and pianist out of obligation, or because he enjoyed music?’ The answer, of course, is that Mozart became a genius because he very much enjoyed playing the piano. As a child he probably played it all the time, much like little boys or girls who are always kicking a ball about.
However, if we approach learning or work as an obligation we will never get beyond mediocrity. The question then is: ‘Shall I risk enjoying – and only enjoying – my work?’ If the answer is ‘yes’, we have to start being keen about what we do and be prepared for dismissal if our employers do not let us enjoy doing it at our own pace.
In order to understand work as a source of enjoyment rather than of stress – to actually feel it like that – one of the best techniques is rational emotive imagination. This consists of imagining oneself doing a job badly, very badly, yet feeling fine emotionally.
For example, if I have to give a lecture I can visualize myself up on the podium unable to speak because I have forgotten what I had to say. The attendees get angry, insult me and finally chuck me out. The talk ends up a total fiasco and they never ask me back to give any more lectures.
Despite all that, I have to imagine leaving the venue with a balanced spirit and, a few hours later, pleased and satisfied with my life because I still have many possible ways to be happy.
If we truly appreciate the good things in life, we will realize that giving lectures isn’t everything. We could never give another lecture and the planet would still keep turning, and we would still have almost the same opportunities for doing worthwhile, rewarding things.
The rational emotive imagination technique has to be deep and intense, to the extent that we actually feel what we are visualizing. The aim is to attain the conviction that the result of the job is not particularly important and that the essential thing is to have a good time and enjoy what we do.
In this chapter we have learned that:
- Efficiency is overrated. Some efficiency is good; too much is bad.
- It is normal and positive to make mistakes. We learn from our mistakes.
- Being mentally dependent on a job is psychologically bad.
- Everything we lose through mistakes – comfort, high productivity, etc. – is superfluous. However, what is not superfluous is our inner peace, which we lose when we become obsessed with perfection.
- ‘Shake it off! Build emotional strength for daily happiness’ by Rafael Santandreu, published by Arcturus Publishing Limited, is out now.
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