Sick of Work: Cracking Under the Pressure? It's Just the Opposite, for Some
September 10, 2004
By Anahad O'Connor, New York Times

For Michael Jones, an architect at a top-tier firm in New York, juggling multiple projects and running on four hours of sleep is business as usual. Mr. Jones has adjusted, he says, to a rapid pace and the constant pressure that leads his colleagues to "blow up" from time to time.

A design project can drag on for more than a year, often requiring six-day workweeks and painstaking effort. At the moment, he said, he is working on four.

But for Mr. Jones, the stress is worth it, if only because every now and then he can gaze at the Manhattan skyline and spot a product of his labor: the soaring profile of the Chatham apartment building on East 65th Street, one of many structures he has helped design in his 14 years at Robert A. M. Stern Architects.

"If I didn't feel like I was part of something important, I wouldn't be able to do this," he said.

Mr. Jones belongs to a rare breed of worker that psychologists have struggled to understand for decades, not for the sheer amount of stress they grapple with day to day, but for the way they flourish under it. They are a familiar but puzzling force in the workplace, perpetually functioning in overdrive to meet a punishing schedule or a demanding boss.

To colleagues, these men and women may seem simply like workaholics. But psychologists who study them call them resilient, or hardy, and say they share certain backgrounds and qualities that enable them to thrive under enormous pressure.

"People who are high in hardiness enjoy ongoing changes and difficulties," said Dr. Salvatore R. Maddi, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Irvine, and the author of a forthcoming book, "Resilience at Work." "They find themselves more involved in their work when it gets tougher and more complicated. They tend to think of stress as a normal part of life, rather than as something that's unfair.''

Chronic stress has been linked to an array of illnesses, including heart disease and depression. But people who cope successfully, studies have found, punch in at work with normal levels of stress hormones that climb during the day and drop sharply at night. Their coworkers who complain of being too stressed have consistently higher levels of hormones that rarely dip very far, trapping them in a constant state of anxiety.

At the same time, resilient people seem to avoid stress-related health and psychological problems, even as colleagues are falling to pieces, say researchers who have studied strenuous work environments.

"Some of it is genetic, some of it is how you were raised, and some it is just your personality," Dr. Bruce McEwen, director of the neuroendocrinology laboratory at Rockefeller University, said.

People who thrive under pressure do not necessarily seek out particular professions, researchers say. But whether they are on the trading floor or the campaign trail, they all appear to have had early experiences in difficult environments that taught them how to regulate their stress levels. They can sense when they are reaching their breaking point, and they know when to take a walk or turn off the ringer.

In some cases, these people subject themselves to stresses of their own making, driven by an unconscious urge to conquer pressures that dogged them as children or young adults, said Steven Kuchuck, a psychotherapist in New York who treats many patients who seek out demanding jobs and relationships.

"There's this strong desire to go back to similar sources of stress that they grew up with in an effort to master it," Mr. Kuchuck said. "Some people will say 'No, I don't like a lot of stress,' but they find themselves in one stressful job after another, so there must be something that's pulling them."

Mr. Kuchuck has also seen the opposite: people who crave a frenzied career because they feel their childhoods were not stimulating at all.

But regardless of what propels people to push themselves, what allows them to prosper, psychologists say, is a strong commitment to their career, a feeling of being in control, and a tendency to view stress as a challenge rather than as a burden.

People's attitudes toward their jobs and the degree to which they feel they make a difference by showing up each day have long been considered powerful indicators of how well they will do. Being just another cog in a machine with no say over what happens is almost guaranteed to cause burnout. But even in the most grueling work environment, people can cope if they feel they have some control.

Studies of professional musicians show that people in orchestras are often less satisfied and more stressed than those in small chamber groups because they lack autonomy, according to Dr. Robert M. Sapolsky, a professor of biology and neurology at Stanford and the author of "Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers." Orchestra musicians are at the mercy of their maestro's every whim. For years, they had no power even to take regular bathroom breaks.

"The people who are under someone's thumb, who are low-ranking and don't have any decision-making,'' Dr. McEwen said, "these are the people who always experience more anxiety."

People who exhibit hardiness are reluctant to cede control. They are also less likely to feel victimized by their bosses or by unpredictable life circumstances. When there is a crisis at work, they can tough it out because they accept a harsh workload or the occasional pink slip as an unsavory but inevitable part of life, psychologists say.

"They know there'll be different challenges, some you can't even anticipate, yet they train their minds to say these things are expected," said Dr. Robert Brooks, a clinical psychologist at Harvard Medical School and the author of "The Power of Resilience."

Anticipating troubled waters can decrease vulnerability to stress-induced diseases. In the early 1980's, Dr. Maddi of U.C. Irvine followed hundreds of employees at Illinois Bell when its parent company, AT&T, was facing federal deregulation. More than 10,000 people eventually lost their jobs.

"There was suicide, depression, anxiety disorders, divorces, heart attacks, strokes - all the things that could be attributed to massive stress," Dr. Maddi said.

But while about two-thirds of the workers in Dr. Maddi's sample unraveled, the other third thrived. They survived the incident with their health intact and hung onto their jobs or moved to another company where they quickly climbed up the ranks.

When the researchers went back and reviewed their first set of interviews, they found that many of the people who made it through unscathed had stressful family backgrounds - constant moving, their parents getting divorced - and were more likely to describe change as inevitable.

"Some of the people who cracked had initially taken a job with Bell rather than I.B.M. because they believed it was safe and didn't want any disruption," Dr. Maddi said.

Stress is unavoidable, so bracing for it every now and then is the best way to cope. But people who are on constant alert may be suffering from an anxiety disorder, psychologists say.

Those who collapse under the pressures of the workplace are prone to envision every worst-case scenario, while resilient people think of how a greater workload, for example, might lead to a promotion. In studies, researchers have found that perhaps the only time pessimists thrive is when they become lawyers.

"If you're drawing up a contract, the ability to see every foreseeable danger is something that goes along with pessimism, but it's also what makes a good lawyer," Dr. Martin Seligman, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, said. "The problem is, not only are they good at seeing that the roof might collapse on you, they're also good at seeing that their mate might be having an affair, that they're never going to make partner."

But one way to overcome cynicism and exhaustion, said Dr. Andy Morgan, an associate professor of psychiatry at Yale, is with a sense of personal accomplishment.

An architect who toils six days a week, regularly burning the midnight oil, like Mr. Jones, can be happy if a glimpse of the Manhattan skyline illustrates the value of his efforts.

"When you feel that you're accomplishing something, it's akin to a sense of control," Dr. Morgan said. "When people start feeling that what they're doing is not meaningful, then they take more sick days, begin looking for another job, and complain of health problems."