JetBlue Flight Attendant Incident Puts the Spotlight On Workplace Stress

Aug. 12, 2010
We all can identify with frustration in the workplace. Jet Blue flight attendant Steven Slater touched a nerve with thousands of workers when he imploded on the job, making a now-famous exit down the plane's emergency slide with a beer in hand after dealing with an unruly passenger.

Why does Slater's story resonate so much with American workers and why was it a bad way to react to a stressful workplace situation? According to expert Jonathan Berent, LCSW, co-author with Amy Lemley of a new book, “Work Makes Me Nervous: Overcome Anxiety and Build the Confidence to Succeed,” many can identify with feeling some anxiety related to work, but for some workers, these feelings of anxiety can be emotionally and physically crippling. “I call it a hidden handicap,” says Berent.

While feelings of being undervalued, unappreciated and stress make many workers wish they could be a little more like Steven Slater and walk (or slide) away from their jobs with a flourish, Berent says of Slater, “What happened with him was a primitive response and that’s what [this incident] tapped into with people.”

“I think his story resonates with anyone who has waited tables, worked in a store or had to have contact with customers, where ‘the customer is always right,’” said one blog commenter of Slater, who added, “I could never do what he did, but he’s my hero.”

Another commenter mentioned throwing his keys and work ID card on the boss’s desk and walking out after watching the boss bully another employee. “That felt good,” he said.

It might feel good at that moment, says Berent, but in the long run, such a response is not healthy or productive. “If people want to take care of themselves, he’s [Slater] is not going to be their role model. He was impulsive, and the reality is, he’s now in a lot of trouble.”

Berent suggests examining the causes of anxiety in the workplace, whether it is related to a fear of public speaking, to not wishing to be the focus of either good or bad attention or a fear of failure (or success). While most of us have heard of autism, a condition that affects seven out of every 1,000 children, most of us have not heard of selective mutism. Selective mutism affects six out of every 1,000 children, and it rarely is diagnosed or treated.

Every child of whom a parent says, “He’s shy around strangers” stands a relatively good chance of continuing to have that issue as an adult. In fact, Berent says he had one patient who had survived ovarian cancer who told him: “I would rather go through chemo again than speak in public.”

Since 1978, Berent has pioneered psychotherapy for social anxiety and related problems. Berent and his staff have worked with thousands of clients, many of whom are very successful at work, but it comes in spite of their anxiety. Workplace anxiety is a real issue, and it affects millions of employees every year. It can spike whenever all eyes are on the workplace anxiety sufferer: not just with stressful clients (as in Slater’s case), but during presentations, meetings, when interacting face to face or when coping with one’s sexual orientation or personal issues.

Most importantly, says Berent, remember that workplace anxiety is not a permanent flaw or a character defect. Berent and Lemley’s book, “Work Makes Me Nervous: Overcome Anxiety and Build the Confidence to Succeed “(Wiley; Hardcover; September 2010) is a self-guided psychotherapy-based program, filled with real stories of real people and a 21-day developmental program of practical exercises and effective stress-management techniques.

The key technique, says Berent, is to make all that panic and adrenalin work for you. “Accept adrenalin as a friend and a source of power,” he says. Adrenalin causes our fight or flight response. Stay and use the adrenalin to fight and overcome those panicked feelings.

He offers these techniques when a situation becomes so stressful for you that it feels like you’re losing control:

1) Keep expectations realistic. Don’t think or hope that you’re not going to be anxious when speaking in public or being put on the spot by an employer.

2) Accept those feelings of fear, panic and anxiety and go with the flow.

3) Use the adrenalin that comes with those feelings as a source of energy and power to get you past that initial fight or flight moment.

4) Take some deep breaths from your diaphragm and keep moving forward.

Workplace anxiety results from an overreaction to adrenaline and you can be trained to transform that adrenaline into energy that boosts productivity and job satisfaction. For more information about social anxiety and for a variety of tools to help deal with issues related to social anxiety, visit http://www.socialanxiety.com.

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