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Sex, Scandal and Other Job Distractions

Stress: Professionals give insights on anxiety, how it affects work, and coping tips. Listen up, Bill

January 30, 1998|BOB SIPCHEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Last week, as President Clinton's travails swarmed like wasps, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright told reporters about a presidential pep talk. Clinton told his staff, she said, "that we should stay focused on our jobs and that he will be fine."

Which probably made the average citizen wonder: "How can they?" and "Will he really?"

Few people work their full lives without an occasional overflow of outside distractions laying siege to their psyches. Psychologists and performance experts say a Pandora's box of stress stalks everyone--divorce, disease, death of a loved one, allegations of scandal--and that a variety of variables determine how, and how well, we cope when the inevitable attack occurs.

Steven Hobbs, a psychologist in the Bay Area, has unusual insight into the noisy intersection of job performance and personal stress: On Jan. 7, his 41-year-old wife, Maria, died of breast cancer. She was the mother of Hobbs' three children, ages 9, 7 and 1.

This week, as usual, Hobbs sat in his San Carlos office listening to clients' woes. There's comfort, he said, in the routine of work and in the hope that he is helping others.

"I'm finding it a bit of a relief," he said. He was quick to add, however, that there is no such thing as a typical case in such matters, no "correct" way to cope.

In other words, the sort of "compartmentalizing" that he is using, and that the president and first lady have said they use--the attempt to mentally block out distracting thoughts and emotions--won't work for everyone.

"What's the saying?" Hobbs asked. "Each person must walk the lonely valley by himself."

In New York, psychiatrist Jeffrey Kahn, president of the mental health consulting firm WorkPsych, said different individuals find stress in different situations, even in such positive events as getting married or having a child.

Likewise, Kahn thinks, while some people fold under stress, others actually work better. "An obvious example is people who are at war. They're under quite stressful circumstances and yet function well most of the time. Some function especially well under life-and-death circumstances."

The budding field of sociobiology suggests that our ability to focus intently under great stress may have been hard-wired into our neural circuitry way back in the evolutionary past. Our hominid forebears learned to concentrate exclusively on an approaching saber tooth, even to the exclusion of a mate's demands or divebombing wasps.

Focusing solely on fighting or fleeing made enormous sense back then, says Jerald Jellison, a psychology professor at USC. "If you have a simple picture of the world, you can take action. When you see the complexities, there's uncertainty, and the uncertainty can inhibit action."

Unfortunately, Jellison adds, the brain may not have caught up with modern tasks, where attention to complex stimuli is often critical.

Najm Meshkati, an associate professor of engineering at USC, thinks the perception that one is at peak performance often is illusory.

Meshkati studies "human mental workload measurement," or the impact of stress on such decidedly 20th century jobs as running a nuclear reactor or an airport control tower. However, what he has found can apply across the spectrum of nonphysical, Information Age, "thinking, decision-making" jobs.

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Much of his research explores how organizational disarray, bad bosses or uncomfortable work space can rattle employees' nerves, diverting their brains from the task at hand. Meanwhile, a complexity of other factors, including the intrusion of personal problems, spills into the stress stew.

With few exceptions, whether a worker recognizes it or not, persistent stress has an impact: "a narrowing of the attention span, inadequate distribution and switching of attention from task to task, forgetting the proper sequence of action, incorrect evaluation of solutions, slowness of arriving at decisions," Meshkati has found.

In other words, workers may think they're on task when, in fact, their focus has narrowed to a sort of tunnel vision. The subtle, intricate, multidimensional aspects of their jobs get shortchanged.

"You may say, 'I'm really throwing myself into my work; I'm doing a good job,' " Jellison says. "But observers will notice you're no longer seeing subtle things, weaving them together, seeing patterns and forecasting."

What can people do to keep their brains clicking in that productive realm where focus is neither too narrow or chaotically broad? Therapists offer a series of steps to take when stress launches a blitz:

* First take care of the basics: Eat. Sleep.

* Be aware that the distress is there; don't ignore it.

* Try to understand the source and confront the causes.

* Talk about the stress with friends, relatives and colleagues.

* Try to relax with hobbies or exercise and seek support from human resource professionals or religious groups.

And if those steps don't help, says Kahn of WorkPsych, it's time to talk to a mental health professional.

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