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Find an Outlet for Stress or Move On

Judging by the stories I hear all week long, from my contacts in academia as well as my clients and candidates in industry, there's a lot of stress out there right now. It's getting more and more difficult to manage a job because the stress load now takes up so much of our mind space. It's not an occasional issue any longer -- it's daily or, for some people, constant.

Sources of stress vary. It could be the stress of a poor relationship with a boss or of a lot of agitated people working together in the same laboratory. It could be that you are carrying personal stress, such as financial or family problems, into the workplace. If you're still in grad school, or a postdoc, you may be worried about your career prospects, or competition in the lab could be stressing you out. No matter the cause, we know enough about stress and its impact on our lives to realize that it's unhealthy. It's also dangerous for your career.

Do you agree that the stress level in work today is much higher than it used to be?

In this month's column, I'll explore the impact of stress on people I've interviewed in my job as a scientific recruiter. While biological stress research is a serious subject pursued in the lab, my focus will be on how it can affect a science career, and on methods a few of my contacts have found for easing their burden.

Early stress research

Hans Selye, a Canadian endocrinologist who researched the effect of stressors on the body, was one of the leading early scientists in the field of stress research. In his seminal experiments, Selye injected irritating agents into mice and observed how the animals' organs and systems responded. His research described three phases of stress: the first moment of impact (the alarm phase), the adjustment to constant stress (the adaptation phase), and the crunch that occurs when adjustment fails (the exhaustion phase). Selye was describing the effects of stress on glandular states, but his three phases provide a convenient frame for exploring how people experience stress at work.

I've interviewed scientists in the midst of each one of these stages. Here is how three scientists have been affected by stress, and what they've done to manage it.

The alarm phase

This is the state you are in when a new stressor hits you, when the alarm bells first go off. You're driving to work in the morning and suddenly -- unexpectedly -- you realize that your day is not going well.

Jerry's heart rate shot up when he scanned the next mile or so of traffic. He was usually in the lab by 9:30 a.m. He took pride in knowing the bad patches during his commute and his track record of avoiding them.

He had left himself plenty of time. It was important to be there today for Dr. Smith's If it's changed, I'd go with 10 a.m. presentation at the institute; the PI had made special arrangements for this guest speaker to spend time with Jerry and a lab mate, as their research was in the niche Smith had pioneered a few years earlier. This was one of the best opportunities he'd had since joining this lab, and now it was about to be squandered. In 5 minutes, Smith would be delivering his presentation and Jerry was nowhere near the lab.

The adaptation phase

This is that period when your mind and body come to terms with the onslaught of daily stressors. Like an athlete who learns to deal with the constant load of weight training, we learn to manage, or "adapt," our behavior and attitudes to the load we are under. This isn't necessarily an unhealthy period; as in the case of the athlete, a certain amount of stress can make us stronger.

Jinghua reviewed the results of the experiment that she and her assistant had just completed. She was excited about the results, which confirmed her earlier work and were the last ones she needed to obtain before publishing. She smiled, put the documents in her backpack, and stood up to stretch and get her coat. As she looked out into the lab, however, she saw three scientists still at work. ... The large schoolhouse clock over their heads read 9:55 p.m. She sighed in resignation and put her coat back on the hook.

There was a lot of competition in the Fuller lab; it was all she could do just to keep up. She knew when she took this job that it was a pressure cooker, a large lab producing top papers in the best journals. Although she missed having a life outside the lab, she knew that the experience had put a sharp edge on her productivity, something she would carry with her wherever she went.

The exhaustion phase

The adaptation phase is a fine place to be, but it's a delicate equilibrium. If something happens to disturb it, there's trouble ahead. Stress gains the upper hand. Disease symptoms appear. Blood pressure levels spin out of control. Depression sets in.

Jonathan put the stack of papers back on the desk and leaned back to think about his predicament. He almost didn't care anymore; that's what worried him most. It was part of the life of a faculty member to seek grants. Grants make the world go 'round in biological chemistry.

But his batting average had slipped so badly, over such a prolonged period of time, that he knew his upcoming tenure battle could get ugly. There was already a fair amount of snickering among his colleagues; he could feel it at every department meeting. When he entered his own laboratory, he saw the questioning glances from those who depended upon him to maintain their jobs and support their training. But he was tired. He didn't feel like trying anymore. Something was going to snap soon. He could feel it coming.

Reducing the load

Do you agree that the stress level in work today is much higher than it used to be? In industry, everyone is working longer hours and doing the job of 1½ employees. Those who have those jobs are lucky to be employed; few have any alternatives.

But there are ways to reduce the ill effects of stress and survive the workday. Here's how Jerry, Jinghua, and Jonathan dealt with their predicaments.

Jerry, a generally easygoing guy who occasionally gets sideswiped by major stress, missed out on that opportunity. He wasn't happy, but his response caused him to reevaluate things. Since then, he has learned that caffeine in the morning is not all that invigorating. In fact, he noticed a direct correlation between his drinking espresso and the frequency of stress events. He switched to herbal tea and went on with his life.

One reason Jinghua has been able to stay in the "zone" -- the adaptation zone -- is the morning yoga class she takes 6 days a week. Taking the time away from the lab to do yoga was not an easy decision, but it's one that has paid huge dividends. She has become quite expert, and she credits yoga with having a huge calming effect on her, especially the breathing exercises, which she can employ throughout the day.

Some scientists in Jonathan's position may find an easy solution to their problem, see their luck improve, or come up with a way to manage the stress. But Jonathan didn't have a relief valve. His career crisis was serious. He needed a change of venue. Jonathan left his tenure-track position for a job in research planning with a technology company. He'll never have to write another grant proposal. He'll be able to handle the stress level comfortably. And although it's impossible to know for sure, there's every reason to expect he'll lead a longer, healthier, happier life as a result of his decision.

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