Stressed at Work? Maybe it's your Attachment Style - April 2019

The issue of work/life balance comes up a lot in my counselling practice, particularly amongst women.  Typically clients come to me feeling exhausted, burnt out and stressed about the range of demands on them in the workplace and at home.

For mothers, a frequent dilemma is how to meet the competing demands of being the sort of partner and mother she wants to be and at the same time have a career or job which gives her satisfaction.

Over recent months, it has been young professional women who have been presenting more with work related stress.  Often it is a case of unrealistic expectations of employers and pressure on staff to take on more and more duties without much thought given to how sustainable this is and how damaging it is to their employees' wellbeing.  However, sometimes it has as much to do with the self imposed pressures to which these workers are subjecting themselves.

Some of my clients are high achievers who are anxious to do well in their careers and advance to more senior positions.  They are highly motivated, super conscientious and work very hard to demonstrate their skills and efficiency.  Unfortunately, they can be their own worst enemy when it comes to work/life balance and looking after themselves.  I have found that FOMO (fear of missing out) can be a factor for these young women.  

They see opportunities in their workplaces where they can obtain valuable experience and will often make great sacrifices in terms of their willingness to work ridiculous hours and prove their value.  They often present to me with problems with sleeping, inability to relax and enjoy their leisure time.  They may also develop physical symptoms, get sick often and have to take time off work, which stresses them even more.

You may wonder why it is that even when someone is already overloaded with work, why they would be willing to take on additional responsibilities and make their working life more stressful.

While personality is obviously an important factor in how we operate in the world, another additional explanation for this may relate to the "attachment style" of such people.

We are familiar with attachment styles in the context of parental and partner relationships, but this can also be applied to the relationships we have in the workplace and how we relate to supervisors and colleagues, particularly when exposed to stress.

In an article in the New York Times, author Elizabeth Grace Saunders, wrote about four different attachment styles and how they play out in the workplace in relation to time management and productivity.  She referred to these as Anxious Pre-occupied Attachment, Dismissive Avoidant Attachment, Fearful Attachment and Secure Attachment.  I have described below some examples of each of these from my own observations in the counselling room, with a specific focus on stress.

Anxious Pre-occupied Attachment

This is a pre-occupation with the fear of upsetting others and failing to gain their approval. This is the person who incessantly checks their emails in case they have missed something important.  This is often accompanied by a negative belief that something bad is about to happen and a tendency to misinterpret the contents of an email as evidence of this.  It can take the form of trying to read between the lines and imagining that the sender is secretly critical of them.  This fear makes the person uneasy and can lead to obsessive checking for perceived risks or threats to them.  When faced with requests from their supervisor, they immediately think they are in trouble and have done something wrong.  Such people are often susceptible to bullying in ther workplace as they can give off the impression that they will do anything to please others and avoid conflict.

If this sounds familiar, you need to find ways to self soothe your anxioous fears.  By checking in with a friend or trusted colleague, you can obtain an objective opinion to assist you to make a more rational assessment of the situation and alleviate your fears.  Sometimes, these fears are justified so having an external, independent person to talk with can help you determine whether the threat is perceived or real.  Whilst it is important to be co-operative in a workplace, no one wants to be seen as a push over and be treated without respect.

Dismissive Avoidant Attachment

This type of style is often based on a belief that the individual knows best what they should be doing and how to do it and resents being told what to do by others.  They may think that they are being asked to work on tasks which are not meaningful to them and will follow their own interests.  This can lead to them missing deadlines or deciding on their own priorities rather than following expectations or instructions.  They can ted to become very involved in their own pet projects and can be inclined to work long hours to ensure a task is completed to their own standards, while ignoring the work they should be doing.  Left unchecked this attachment style can create conflict and risks exposing the person to performance management issues.

To rectify this tendency requires a change of focus from being centred on individual priorities and developing a more team focused approach and recognising that others opinions and preferences are just as important as your own.

Fearful Avoidant Attachment

This style is based primarily on a pervasive fear that disaster is about to strike and therefore everything that might appear potentially risky must be avoided at all costs.  The result of this is that the person spends so much time protecting themselves from the perceived bad thing that they never go out of their comfort zone to try to excel in something new and miss out on the opportunity for positive feedback.    They may indulge in unhelpful distractions such as social media, chatting to colleagues or finding excuses why they cannot direct their attention to their work.  They fear being judged and found inadequate.  

To overcome the negative impact of this style, it is important to gradually face the fears one step at a time.  By focusing on dealing with one small thing that they regard as a threat and learning to sit with this they can successfully manage their fear and gradually build confidence in their own ability to deal with potentially anxiety provoking situations.

Secure Attachment

This is obviously the state we all aim to achieve.  This entails the ability to deal effectively with the tasks required of us and a belief that our work is valued and we will not be punished if we make the occasional mistake.  Work becomes easier and even at the busiest of times, we are able to handle the stress without becoming overwhelmed.

People who feel secure at work are able to be more assertive, to set proper boundaries and can say no when they need to so as to avoid being taken advantage of or exposed to unreasonable demands.

Can you recognise yourself in any of these attachment styles?  By reflecting on your own current style, you can gain greater awareness of how you operate in the workplace and interact with superiors and peers when exposed to stress.  This can assist you to identify situations when you are practising avoidance, distraction or other unhelpful behaviours out of fear or insecurity.  By facing up to these and deciding to behave differently, you can avoid some of the factors which cause workplace stress and find a better work/life balance.

All of us will respond differently to the workplace culture and the personalities of the people we work with.  In some circumstances it will be helpful and even necessary, to adopt your particular style to one which is most appropriate to the situation at hand.  A secure attachment style will usually be the most desirable, but it would be unwise to become too trusting if you come to sense that there are signs that your security is genuinely under threat either from unexpected changes in the workplace or from unreasonable demands of a superior.

Self care is absolutely essential in today's workplaces, where workers are exposed to greater expectations than ever before and the pressure for work to dominate more and more of our lives grows steadily.  By identifying what you need to introduce into your life outside of work to remain healthy, energetic and calm will increase your ability to find more job satisfaction and live a more balanced life.

If you are having difficulty with work stress, perhaps you may benefit from an opportunity to talk about this.  I can be contacted on 0438 855328 and would be happy to assist you. I



© Dawn Vincent