Combat Stress without Stressing Out
Clinical psychologist Gayle K. Porter addresses librarians of color at JCLC in Kansas City, Missouri.
From the start, people in the crowd knew they were in for a treat.
As soon as Gayle K. Porter, a clinical psychologist, walked up onstage to begin her Friday morning talk—titled “We Need a Revolution: Combating Stress and Depression in the Workplace,” sponsored by the National Library of Medicine—she queued music and told the 200-plus crowd at JCLC to get up off their seats because, she said, “You can’t have a revolution sitting down.”
What followed was an entertaining, somber, and often funny discussion about women’s health, particularly within communities of color.
Porter—coauthor of Prime Time: The African American Woman’s Complete Guide to Midlife Health and Wellness—identified the key characteristics of an unhealthy workplace (negative, demeaning, disrespectful, uncaring, etc.) and said that, per year, more than 1 million absences from work in the US are stress related, equaling $180 billion in lost productivity nationwide. “If you’re a manager who has a person on staff who is often absent,” she said, “that person could just be a bad employee, but most often it’s because he or she is stressed.”
The first step, Porter said, is to acknowledge our stressors in order to better manage what we do have control over.
And yet, as we grow older, stress levels continue to rise because many women are now in management positions and are stuck in the sandwich generation in which “we’re taking care of big momma, our children, and our children’s children,” she said, adding that this is especially problematic for Latinas, many of whom may have language barriers and are doing all the caretaking in isolation.
For librarians in particular, Porter said, budget cuts, digital competition, public misperceptions, and rising demands have all been workplace stressors. That’s why librarians must tell their churches, temples, synagogues, and mosques “what it is you do,” she said. “When you start telling your stories—and you can’t leave it to others to tell it for you—it will be a different story than what people in the public know.”
Porter also addressed how stress has an effect on the high levels of obesity within communities of color. “It’s killing us,” she said. While she admitted that she has had to cut back on her own vice—Almond Joys (“I could eat them every day”)—Porter said that one way she fights the urge is by having a support person to help keep her on track. That person is her colleague and friend Marilyn Gaston (who was also scheduled to appear at the talk but was unable to attend because of a recent auto accident).
In communities of color, there is “so much shame when it comes to talking about stress,” she said, often because of cultural issues and expectations. She cited statistics summarized by the US Office of Minority Health that found Asian American Pacific Islander women living in the US and who are 65 or older have the highest rates of suicide within that age group.
Knowing the signs of stress matters, Porter said. People won’t tell you they’re depressed because “often they don’t even know it.” Then she added, “But every night has a day that goes with it.”
For managers, improvements may include allowing for flexible work schedules, implementing zero-tolerance policies against harassment, and setting up good employee assistance programs (EAPs) to deal with mental health issues.
But the biggest change has to come from lifestyle changes. She recommended that women especially “take care of you while caring for others” and suggested the following techniques to help manage stress:
- meditation or prayer as a way to “get your head ready”
- deep breathing
- yoga and tai chi
- a balanced diet
- scheduled personal time outs
- a time-management program
- muscle relaxation
- counseling or therapy
- positive laughter
- keeping your distance from negative people (Advice: “If you go on vacation with your spouse or partner and come back more stressed, then next vacation, leave them at home.”)
Porter concluded her talk with “Poem for Flight,” by Becky Birtha, which includes the following lines: “And whatever it is that holds you /whatever it is you think you cannot live without/ the time has come to open your hands and / let it go.”