Sunday, January 30, 2011
"Works well under pressure." This is a quality that a lot of employers look for in a potential employee. They want someone who remains productive in a high stress environment. Perhaps they are seeking someone who embodies the old adage, "When the going gets tough, the tough get going." The fact that such an adage even exists suggests that our society values those who keep it together when things get difficult.
It's understandable that an employer would want to hire someone who "works well under pressure" if the environment in which the person will be working is a high stress one. It's true that it is more effective to keep doing the best you can in the face of environmental stressors as opposed to "falling apart." I think most of us do this. There are, however, those people who seem to thrive under pressure. They put off doing things until the last minute because it's difficult for them to get motivated for action when there isn't a deadline looming just ahead to generate a little bit of tension. If things aren't moving quickly enough then they get bored. These are the people who "work well under pressure." When you turn up the heat they spring into action.
I can see how people like this would be an asset to any company. But is there anything wrong with people who prefer a low stress, low intensity environment? Are those of us who perform best in a quiet, structured environment any less valuable?
Personally, I DO NOT work particularly well when I'm under a lot of stress. No, I don't "fall apart" or "crumble" when things get difficult but I definitely don't churn out my best work under these conditions either. The adage "when the going gets tough..." seems to imply that I am not, in fact, "tough." I become overwhelmed when too many demands are placed on me. I don't "get going" -- I actually tend to slow down. This helps me to cope with feeling overwhelmed. I also try to look forward to a time when things will be less difficult so that I can return to optimal functioning.
I find this to be true with many of my patients as well, particularly those who have a lot of anxiety. Maybe it's because when you struggle with anxiety you essentially spend every day "under pressure." You (ideally) develop ways to cope with daily life that help to alleviate your anxiety. In contrast, most (non-anxious) people don't have to find ways to "cope" with daily life; they just live it. They don't initiate their coping mechanisms until things begin to get stressful. The coping skills of anxious people are pretty much ALWAYS activated. This takes energy and conscious effort. It can be difficult to find additional energy or to generate additional methods of coping in response to environmental stressors.
I tell these patients the same thing I've learned to tell myself. During periods of high stress you are GOING to experience a lot of anxiety. You probably will always have a difficult time with change. It's ok. Feel the anxiety and go about your daily life the best that you can. Take comfort in the knowledge that once life settles down a bit you will start to feel better. Also, KNOW that high stress environments tend to make you feel anxious. Be careful not to unnecessarily put yourself in these types of situations. Don't take on too many projects. Don't commit yourself to more than you think you can handle. Deal with problems as they arise so that they don't accumulate. Take care of yourself by managing your external demands. You don't have to thrive under pressure -- you just have to get through it.