Job Stress SOS: Solutions from a Top Manager

Abramson, JillHaving worked for nearly two decades at the New York Times, where deadlines are constant and accuracy is paramount, Jill Abramson knows stress. The former executive editor’s threshold for it is probably higher than it is for most; she’s the first woman to lead the “newspaper of record”—and her abrupt dismissal was controversial.  But as a journalist and top manager, Abramson has felt or seen it all, from the strain of feeling overwhelmed to the tension of changing leadership. Cope better with her advice.

The Relief of a Release Valve

Pressure needs an escape, and Abramson’s preferred outlet is physical exercise. “When I was executive editor, I had a yoga teacher come to the office twice a week, and going back for decades, I went to the gym every other day,” says Abramson, now a Harvard lecturer. For extreme stress, she recommends pool laps, where you can focus free of distraction: “I’ve done a lot of good thinking while swimming,” she adds.

But if Abramson could make only one suggestion? “Have someone in your life—like a spouse or significant other or best friend—who is not at work and you can talk to honestly about what is making you stressed,” she says. The reason: “Giving voice to something demystifies it.” It also helps to have an outsider’s perspective.

Real Ways to Reduce Stress

Chugging Pepto-Bismol straight from the bottle may make you feel better, but in the workplace, actual action is usually needed to stop the stress. Here’s how to handle five common sources of office tension.

A fast-approaching deadline: In Abramson’s experience, it’s not procrastinating that usually leads to this kind of pressure; it’s doing so much research that you feel overwhelmed. The only solution is to start. “Even if you feel you don’t have the things you need in front of you or you don’t feel organized, just sit down and begin,” she says. “It’ll start a slope of thought and work that can launch you in a good way and help you complete whatever you’re doing.”

A tower of work: If you feel you generally have more assignments than is reasonable for one person to accomplish, tell your boss. “But do it in a calm, measured way,” Abramson says. In fact, she recommends writing an email, listing everything you do and explaining why it’s too much without getting emotional. If your boss responds that she’s open to shifting some things, follow up in person to tell her which projects you would like off your docket. If she doesn’t respond positively, it may be time to look for a new job—or accept a life of chronic overwork.

Regime change: “Number one is try to get to know your new leader—and don’t accept what others say about the person,” Abramson says. “You need to make an independent judgment based on your own interactions and experiences.” It’s also important to be open-minded. “No one should feel her success is tied to one person. As wonderful as your relationship with your old boss is, you can have it with the new boss, too.” Abramson says to give the new leadership time, but in the end, if you feel mistreated and abused, find allies and speak up for yourself—even at the risk of alienating management. “You may not have a happy ending, but you should work where you can expect to be treated fairly,” Abramson says.

A bad personality mix: Not everyone gets along. If keeping the relationship to written emails doesn’t help matters, consider asking your boss to put you with a different partner or on a different team. But be positive and don’t personalize the reason, Abramson says. Instead of saying, “I can’t work with so-and-so because he’s impossible,” figure out who you want to work with and explain why it’s a productive pairing.

Self-imposed perfectionism: This is actually one of the hardest sources of stress to kick. “You probably feel like a pretender and that you’re not as good as people say you are,” Abramson says. “But every successful person has these feelings.” Remember that when having these conversations in your head—and try to ease up on yourself.