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Toxic employment takes toll on workers

February 25, 1997

By ELLEN LYON

Staff Writer

As the executive director and only full-time employee of a Tri-State area convention and business bureau, Penny Ridenour said she easily put in 56 hours a week on the job.

It was what the stressful job took out of her that eventually prompted her to quit last March after 2 -1/2 years, she said.

Ridenour had lost 10 pounds, couldn't sleep or concentrate and would have "crying jags" that lasted four or five hours, she said.

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"I couldn't do it anymore," Ridenour said.

Because work is "the place where we spend all our time and the place where we derive our self-worth," it can be a primary source of stress in our lives, according to Barbara Bailey Reinhold, author of "Toxic Work: How to Overcome Stress, Overload and Burnout and Revitalize Your Career."

Sometimes that stress can reach unhealthy levels, Reinhold said.

Reinhold, a 1960 graduate of Hood College in Frederick, Md., is director of the Career Development Office and an adjunct associate professor of psychology at Smith College in Northampton, Mass.

In 20 years of career counseling and consulting, Reinhold said she has seen the effects of "toxic workplaces" with stress levels so high that clients would come in with "such pained looks on their faces."

She said she would ask them "where does your job hurt?"

The answers were in some unexpected places.

Stress weakens the immune system and can cause a variety of problems ranging from cavities and gum disease to swollen glands, headaches, panic attacks and depression, stress management counselors say.

Sudden forgetfulness and a sense of disorganization often is the first symptom of stress, said Jill Cody, a certified mental health counselor in Frederick.

For Ridenour the effects of job stress were devastating.

Her doctors diagnosed her condition as a major depressive episode, she said.

Ridenour is in therapy and on medication and working part time elsewhere, she said.

Looking back, Ridenour said she believed so much in what she was doing that she didn't realize how much the stress was hurting her.

Ridenour said employers need to look at the problem of job stress and that employers, in general, "need to appreciate workers who are willing to go that extra mile and not take advantage of them."

That may mean giving an employee some time off this week for extra time they worked last week, she suggested.

Employees can help reduce their stress levels by penciling some pleasure into their daily work schedules, Reinhold said.

She advises clients to fill out a "prescription pad for pleasures," which entails listing 20 things that would make their day at work just a bit more pleasant.

Then, Reinhold said, she tells her clients to schedule into each work day three of the items on their pleasure list.

Some suggestions include listening to a favorite tape on the way to work, putting fresh flowers on the desk or, with the permission of the boss, taking a 10-minute break during the day to play a game of solitaire on the computer, Reinhold said.

An issue of control

Economic factors can affect the atmosphere in the workplace. Job insecurity is a major source of stress in the 1990s.

"The primary (issue) is control, whatever undercuts a person's control" over their job, Reinhold said.

Jim Hoover, a licensed social worker at Washington County Hospital's Institute for Personal Development, said that in this area he sees more stress from small businesses struggling to stay alive than from big companies downsizing as is happening in many cities.

Some job stress is age-related.

Workers in their mid-20s to early 30s often go through a "mini life crisis" where they re-evaluate their career goals and ask themselves "do I really want to do this the rest of my life?" Hoover said.

People need to realize that "nothing is permanent. You can work in one job for awhile and maybe start a search for another job," he said.

Or perhaps it's time to re-evaluate the goals on the current job or move to another department in the company, Hoover said.

Leisure-time activities can reduce job stress, especially if the activity is different from what the person normally does at work, he said.

For instance, people who have to read a lot at work should spend some of their free time doing something physical, while those whose work is very physical might want to engage in more sedentary leisure-time activities, he said.

A positive conspiracy

Workers need to start a "positive conspiracy" on the job, "to get people talking about what could we do to make things different," Reinhold said.

Employers can reduce stress levels by setting realistic deadlines, allowing employees to use creativity in accomplishing tasks and providing items like day care and good health care benefits, both of which are sources of anxiety to many workers, Hoover said.

Bosses need to delegate authority as well as responsibilities and give workers some choice in how to perform their jobs, Cody said.

Employers also need to be specific about what they require, set priorities and stick to them, she said.

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