We live in an exciting but challenging time in history. For decades now change has been constant in the global arena, which of course means that change is also constant in our organizations, our offices, and in our personal lives. For all the advances and benefits, the unending motion—the inability to predict what’s going to happen next, the realization that what you’ve done at work for decades is no longer relevant, or that what you did yesterday is not going to be what you do in a month—takes a toll.

Download Infographic: The Real Cost of Unhappy Employees

Stress is a normal, healthy physiological response that can be helpful, especially in situations where we need to protect ourselves from physical danger. When we perceive a threat, our brains react by triggering changes in our nervous system. Our muscles become tense. Our hearts beat faster in anticipation that we’re going to need more oxygen and nutrients. Our bronchial airwaves expand. Our pupils dilate so we can see more around us. The small blood vessels close to our skin become tight and small so that we won’t lose as much blood if we’re cut or injured. Our cognitive processing is enhanced so we think faster—for a brief period of time. Essentially our bodies are getting ready to run or fight.

These responses are great when we’re facing real dangers such as a physical attack or a natural disaster. Unfortunately, our brains don’t do a very good job of distinguishing this type of serious danger from the kinds of pressures and threats we experience at work. Overly competitive colleagues, too little time for what needs to get done and poor leadership are just three of a host of problems that can cause us to experience constant stress at work. This causes big problems physically, mentally, and emotionally.

Long-term acute stress leads to high blood pressure, heart problems, chronic infections, and an increased susceptibility to diabetes and even cancer. There is also a strong connection between stress and gastrointestinal issues, muscular and skeletal problems, restlessness day and night, and substance abuse.  

When we are stressed to the max, we often don’t take time for family, friends, fun, exercise, or even sleep.  Everything takes a back seat to other more urgent concerns—like getting up and going to work to deal with the day-to-day struggles. But, when we cut out people and things we love, we often exacerbate stress. And when we skimp on sleep, we are in for real trouble.

I know people who bragged for decades, “I don’t need much sleep, four hours is great!” Well, they were wrong. We need seven to eight hours, pretty much every night. And if we don’t get it, everything suffers: physical health, emotional wellbeing, cognition, and decision making. If we push through, night after night, week after week without enough sleep we can actually become unhinged (it’s called sleep deprivation psychosis).

Lack of sleep and stress can contribute to other mental health problems, too. For example, some people find themselves dealing with anxiety disorders. Others overuse sleep aids, pain medications, or alcohol. Some people get depressed—clinically depressed.

Sadly, lots of people live in this depressed state—and go to work—to their own and their companies’ detriment. In fact, depression affects the U.S. economy and health care costs as much as heart disease and AIDS. It’s one of the top three reasons why people seek help from employee assistance programs, and with symptoms like fatigue, irritability, and inability to process information or make decisions, it most certainly affects our success at work. And obviously, depression is the antithesis of happiness.

Stress, then, has profound effects on our physical and mental health. And in today’s world, stress is something we all experience—and work often makes it worse.  This happens in part because of the sheer amount of work we have to do. And, when our beliefs, hopes and dreams are under attack, or when something we love at work is threatened, we react as if we are in physical danger. When these kinds of attacks are constant stress is magnified to the point that it can seem like our job is killing us. And in some cases, it might be.

We need to be listening carefully to our inner voice, so we can hear the wake up call before our lives at work are miserable. This takes a great deal of self-awareness. If you aren’t able to define what’s important to you, it’s very hard to notice the signs that tell you you’re beginning to lose focus. If you have trouble articulating how you’re feeling in any given moment, or understanding your general mood over time, it’s easy to blame others, your boss, or the proverbial “them” for your uneasiness, anxiety, or feeling adrift in your career. If, on the other hand, you mindfully attend to your thoughts, beliefs, feelings, and reactions you are far more likely to hear that faint whisper of a wake-up call long before it becomes a shout.

Once you hear the wake-up call, you can and must play an active role in defining your fate. First, it’s important to take control of your emotional reaction to the overall situation, and then do the hard work of figuring out what you really want in your job and work life. In the next stage of the process, you can work on changing your now-somewhat negative attitude. If you’ve been treated pretty badly and had been unhappy for a long time, it might have become second nature to look at the world and the future with more than a touch of cynicism, which can be very destructive over time. It takes effort and courage to break the cycle of pessimism and negativity, but it’s worth it! A more positive, upbeat and hopeful attitude will help fuel your resilience–and your happiness.

Based on extensive research and decades of experience with leaders, How to Be Happy at Work deepens our understanding of what it means to be truly fulfilled and effective at work and provides clear, practical advice and instruction on how to get there―no matter what job you have.

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