Psychological manoeuvres to cope with work stresses can be harmful
There are many ways of dealing with extreme stress at work: chatting around the water cooler with colleagues or sharing the odd drink after hours often does the trick.
The mind, however, also has its own unconscious methods of shutting out aspects of work that can otherwise lead to intolerable anxiety. This helps distance oneself from overwhelmingly bad feelings, such as jealousy, insecurity and anger. However, these coping methods can create more problems than they solve because to varying degrees they all depend on a distortion of reality.
These defence mechanisms might take an optimistic form, with someone rationalising that a situation is not as bad as it actually is. At the other end of the continuum are more destructive responses, such as denying the existence of a problem. Another common coping method is blaming others for problems rather than admitting to responsibility that could leave one feeling guilty or bad about oneself.
Kerry Sulkowicz, a psychoanalyst and founder of the Boswell Group, a New York business consultancy, says these are unconscious choices, determined by an individual’s psychology and the nature of the stress: “A problem with these defences is that ultimately they break down. They can’t last for ever and the longer they persist, the worse the consequences may be for the individual – because time is passing them by and opportunities for change may be lost.”
An example comes from a founding chief executive who is charismatic and effective in attracting business, but is unable to deal with the stress of making critical decisions about his staff. As a result he has a bloated team of high-paid people who do very little. He is in denial, not of the dire straits that his company is in, but of his role in its impending collapse. He does not see that his inability to make tough personnel decisions and ultimately hand over control to a new CEO is crippling the company. Instead, he projects the problems on to his antagonised board of directors and rids himself of responsibility.