Thinking the Stress at Work Might Kill You? Ask Madeleine

Dear Madeleine,

A couple of years ago I moved from working in the bio/life sciences private sector to a government agency. It was a big adjustment, as you can imagine. Then, nine months ago, my direct supervisor was abruptly let go and I was tapped to be the boss. There was no due process, interviewing, or anything—I was just handed the job.

I was thrilled at first, but had no idea what a mess I was stepping into. I was put in the position of managing the people who were my peers, and they have all been here much longer than I have. I know some of them have struggled to not hold this promotion against me, but others have just let their hate flag fly.

If that weren’t enough, my new supervisor seems unstable. I never know what her mood will be. She starts every conversation with the problem of the day and wants me to help her understand who is to blame and how to punish them. I can’t really read her, but I can usually expect her to be hostile.

I am also dealing with some health problems that require multiple doctors’ visits but am afraid to share any information with my boss as I am certain it will not remain confidential. She thinks I’m slacking because I often take long lunches while at doctor appointments.

I am inspired by the mission of the agency, and I think I can really make an impact here—but I think the stress might just kill me. Thoughts?


Dear Stress-o-Rama,

Whoa. OK. Let’s review: you’re still adjusting to a government institution culture, your direct reports at the very least resent you and at worst hate you, and your boss is hostile and unpredictable. Is it possible your health issues are stress related? It doesn’t take an MD to suspect a correlation. Even if they are not related because you had them before all of this, it’s very possible the stress will make things worse. The research is unequivocal on this—and come on, did we really need the research to tell us?

First things first, my dear: your health. When people say things like “the stress might kill me,” they actually mean what they are saying, even if they don’t realize it. All the language we use that we pass off as metaphor is literal. That guy is a pain in the neck, this situation is crushing my back, she makes me sick, this job is sucking my soul out of me, my heart is broken. It is real. We are speaking the truth. And we all need to stop and listen to ourselves—me included—but right now, mostly you.

I appreciate that you are inspired and that you see how you could make an impact, but if the stress kills you, that won’t happen. Now you’re going to think I’m being dramatic, but I’m just going to say it. Stop. Breathe. Create an escape hatch. Go to HR, tell them about your health situation, and take some medical leave to get your sanity back. Go to your doctors’ appointments, learn to meditate, get acupuncture, go for long walks, speak to a counselor, create an action plan to get the likely direct reports on your side, and create a strategy to manage the nasty boss. Take two weeks, at least. Take PTO if you have to. You owe it to yourself to get the space you need to lower your stress level and craft a way to manage the multiple fronts on which you need to fight. Let’s be clear: I am not talking about taking a vacation. I am talking about taking a big step back, putting your self-care first, and putting a battle plan together with all of your wits about you. Get support from your best friends, your significant other, your parents. Devote yourself full time to getting yourself on an even keel and ready for what is to come.

With a little distance, you may see that you will not win here under any circumstance. That would be good data and something you can act on. Or you may see how you can win, get back into the game, and make the impact you so desire. But the breathing room and clarity you’ll get with a little distance are key. A couple of tools you can use immediately to calm yourself down:

  • Meditation. No one has an excuse not to meditate, because you don’t need a book or a class anymore. All you need is to use a free app for 10 minutes a day. 10 minutes of meditation will lower your blood pressure from the first time you do it—and keep it down for the entire day. I have seen this work for the least likely, highest strung people in the highest stress situations. It is real. It works. Do it. 10 minutes.
  • Morning Pages. This is a tool that was introduced in Julia Cameron’s book The Artist’s Way. Now I really am dating myself because it was originally published 28 years ago—but some things just stand the test of time, and this is one of them. It is super simple; first thing in the morning, even while you are still in bed, you write, longhand, in a stream of consciousness, for three pages. A legal pad, a journal, a notebook, whatever. That’s it. This benefits everyone in slightly different ways, but the number one response I have heard is that it lowers the static—the noise level in your head. Do it. It will take you 9 minutes and you have nothing to lose.

So I’ll bet you won’t take time off. Very few people do when they most need to. But maybe you will try meditating and/or morning pages. Either way, I really, really hope you make a concerted effort to calm yourself down so you can think straight, get your priorities in order, and stop thinking you might actually die. Keep me posted, please. Love, Madeleine

About the author

Madeleine Blanchard Headshot 10-21-17

Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.

Got a question for Madeleine? Email Madeleine and look for your response here next week!

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