CBT – Overcoming Stress in the Workplace

Psychotherapy involves meeting with a person in order to meet goals that overcome fears, anxieties, stress, etc. However, there are many models of therapy used by many therapists in many different ways. This article seeks to highlight potentially beneficial options of how psychotherapy and counseling may help patients to overcome stress in the workplace.

There are many ways that people can decrease work stress. People can meditate, eat something delicious during breaks, do daily yoga, get coached on how to do their job differently, have a backup plan if they are stressed out about the possibility of being laid off, etc. But that deep process of psychotherapy, which still has some stigma about being just for the mentally ill, how useful can it be? This article answers this question from the perspective of an actual psychotherapist with years of experience treating actual clients for work stress.

Psychotherapy for work stress often starts off with some counseling. The counseling involves providing specific feedback on how to make changes in the job so as to reduce stress. For example, if you work on a salary and end up doing 60+ hours work weeks that wear you out, the counsel may be to find ways to be just as productive at 50 hours as you were at 60+ hours. A suggestion for others may be about improving delegating efficiency, especially for those who micromanage.

Sometimes all the behavior changing feedback in the world is not enough. Being told to not micromanage, along with specific suggestions on how to improve delegating, would work if we were computers ready for reprogramming. Human beings are thinkers and feelers. It is not easy to break old habits. In such cases, a next step may be Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT involves learning new ways to think about old situations, leading to new emotions that make it much easier to change behaviors that normally would be very difficult to change.

Let us apply CBT to Beth, the manager who micromanages and has trouble efficiently delegating. The therapist can first ask Beth to spend a week writing down what she thought and felt whenever she could have placed more authority onto her workers. Her thoughts included, “Others are not as effective at the tasks required for the research project as I am, so if I do not give detailed instructions on how to do each task, as well as to do as much of the work myself as possible, the job will not be done well.” The therapist helps her identify feeling that followed her thoughts, which were “untrusting” and critical. Ironically, the more she micromanages, the more dissatisfied her workers become, decreasing the overall productivity. She also loses patience both at work and with her family, due to stress.

The therapist teaches her how to override her thoughts, thus creating new emotions, by coming up with incompatible thoughts. An example would be, “The more trust and ownership of the project I place in my well-trained workers, the more they will come through for me. Also, the better I can delegate, the more patience I will have, therefore I will be better able to assist people with difficulties by listening and troubleshooting.” Over time, and with enough practice, these new thoughts can trigger the emotions of being trusting and confident. She then becomes patient both at work and at home, as she thinks and feels differently, resulting in new behaviors and lower levels of stress.

In my practice, I find that the vast majority of people who apply CBT to work stress, as prescribed, experience a significant reduction of the stress in a matter of weeks or months. If someone does not respond to CBT, what can be done? The therapist may suggest including what some call a deeper form of psychotherapy, utilizing a more psychodynamic psychotherapy. This healing approach may involve working with conscious and unconscious thoughts and feelings, working with how they intersect w/personality and behavior.

By, Sam Schaperow, MSMFT, LMFT