Managing Stress in the Workplace
with Rational Effectiveness Training

By Wayne Froggatt

Copyright Notice: This document is copyright to the author (1990-97). Single copies (which include this notice) may be made for therapeutic or training purposes. For permission to use it in any other way, please contact: Wayne Froggatt, Rational Training Resources, 205 Sunnybank Crescent, Hastings, New Zealand. (E-mail: Comments are welcomed. This document is located on the internet site:

Getting support at work
Assertiveness at work
Rational Effectiveness Training at Work
Applying the twelve principles
Further reading on workplace effectiveness 

Please note: This article has been taken from the book GoodStress: The life that can be yours by Wayne Froggatt (HarperCollins Publishers, Auckland, 1997). 'Rational Effectiveness Training' refers to the methodology developed by Dr. Dominic DiMattia, which is described in more detail earlier in GoodStress.

We will begin by studying a type of stress that is particularly associated with work. We will then select several of the practical strategies described in Part Three of GoodStress to see how they apply to the workplace (though of course all the strategies apply to that context). After that, we will briefly review some of the many ways in which rational effectiveness training can be used in the workplace. Finally, we will see how the twelve rational principles can help workers and organisations not just to cope, but to become more effective.


There is a type of stress which, although it can occur in any situation, has been mainly documented in relation to the workplace. Called burnout, it is the result of continued and unrelieved stress over a long period.

The typical symptoms are exhaustion, decline in job satisfaction, difficulty coping with role demands, absenteeism, impatience and bad temper, resentment toward colleagues and consumers, and alcohol abuse. It usually progresses in three stages.

How to identify burnout

In the early stage, the person may become over-responsible toward consumers, over-involved with the job (staying late, no breaks, avoiding colleagues) and experience minor health problems like colds and headaches.

In the middle stage there tends to be a continual negative attitude toward the organisation with non-constructive complaining to coworkers and blaming of others, occasional inefficiency (slow, rude, forgetful), over-compliance, rigid application of rules and instructions, and worsening physical symptoms (migraines, influenza, menstrual problems, backache).

In the final stage, there can be open conflict with the organisation including tears, rage, hearings, sacking or resignation; an inability to function in the work role leading to total retreat or paralysis; and more serious physical symptoms like nausea, anxiety and stomach problems, such that employment may be terminated for medical reasons. Psychiatric referral may occur. The person may renounce their profession or role and retreat to menial tasks or manual work.

Avoiding burnout

Recognising the early signs of burnout will enable you to take corrective action. Prevention, though, is better than cure - if you practice healthy living and good stress management, as described throughout this book, you will stay well away from even the early stages of burnout.

Getting support at work

Maintaining good relationships with others in the workplace is a key way to avoid burnout. You can get help with problem-solving, avoid feelings of alienation, and operate better as part of a team.

What causes isolation in the workplace?

Time. If the workplace is busy, maintaining relationships may seem a low priority. People moving up the promotional ladder are especially prone to become ‘too busy’ to take time out for support.

Differences in status and power. If you are in authority over another, then you have more power than that person. Subordinates are only too aware you can recommend for or against their promotion; enhance or reduce their work satisfaction; and, ultimately, play a part in terminating their employment. This power differential makes it hard (and, mostly, undesirable) for managers to seek personal support from their subordinates.

Few peers available. If you are in an executive position, there may be few people at your level easily available to you. This gets progressively worse as you move further up the ladder. Any competition among peers will make mutual support even more unlikely.

The assumption that support should ‘just happen’. People in the workplace often assume that integration into a group, and the giving and taking of support, are things that naturally happen. Consequently, they may do little to see that a new person is included, or take notice when a colleague begins to isolate.

Make time!

It is incorrect to say that we do not have time. We always have time - twenty-four hours a day of it, seven days a week, fifty-two weeks a year. We use that time for whatever we think - rightly or wrongly - is important.

You can choose to see support in the workplace as a priority and allocate time to it. In fact, time spent on support is time well spent. By reducing stress, you will increase your efficiency and effectiveness.

Give some time to informal visiting and chatting with peers and subordinates. Linger behind after a meeting with a colleague. Talk to coworkers during your breaks and take other opportunities to socialise with them.

Look for support in many places

As well as informal contacts, consider having formal meetings with coworkers about your own or shared concerns. Arrange a regular meeting with a supervisor or mentor where you can deal with issues on a continuing basis. Take opportunities to meet with people in your field from other workplaces, at conferences, seminars, workshops, or interest group meetings.

Return the favour

You can increase the likelihood of support from others if you offer them support. The principle of enlightened self-interest is just as relevant to the workplace as it is to your personal life.

Maintain appropriate boundaries

If you are a manager or supervisor, communication with subordinates can help ease any sense of isolation - but it is important to maintain some boundaries. It may be appropriate to problem-solve with subordinates on matters to do with the workplace - but not to seek their help with your own emotional issues. Save these for your peers, partner or non-work friends.

Be wary of developing intimate relationships at work. Between peers, there may be some advantages - co-workers are easy to meet, you can learn about them before committing yourself, and they are likely to be similar in socioeconomic status, education and income level. But there are some dangers:

  • An attempt to start a romance may be construed as sexual harassment, even if one party thought they were receiving encouragement from the other. Charges of sexual harassment are more likely when there is inequality in status and power between the people concerned.
  • A proportion of workplace romances are extramarital affairs, which creates stress both in and out of the workplace.
  • A romantic connection between manager and subordinate can be dangerous to both parties. Because of the power differential, it will not be an equal relationship. Co-workers may become jealous. If the relationship ends, one of the parties may have to leave the workplace.

If a supportive relationship at work develops into something more, stand back and ask: is this in my interests, or would I better to re-establish the boundary?

Cultivate feedback

An important part of feeling supported in the workplace is to get feedback on your job performance. Unfortunately, it is not easy to get honest feedback. People tend to be anxious to please and afraid to offend.

Directly invite people to be honest with you. When they give you negative feedback, don’t get defensive. Encourage them to continue. Ask questions, help them clarify their thoughts and be specific in their comments.

You may find people within your organisation - a supervisor, mentor, or trusted colleague - who will provide you with feedback. It may also be appropriate, sometimes even necessary, to go outside the organisation and seek feedback from a spouse, friends, or independent consultant.

To get started, complete a variation of the form illustrated on page *. List your various task areas at work, and as well as showing potential sources of support for each area, show possible sources of feedback.

Assertiveness at work

Stuart Schmidt and David Kipnis describe six strategies that people commonly use to influence their superiors - reasoning, confrontation, friendliness, obtaining support from others, gaining the patronage of higher authorities, and bargaining.

Which ways work best? It appears that people who use confrontation, both men and women, end up with less than those who use reason and the other methods. Confronters also have the highest levels of stress and the lowest levels of job satisfaction.

Many people confuse influence with power. But as Elaina Zuker points out, power is often the least effective form of influence. There may be short-term gains in pushing others around, but in the long run, power leads to unwilling cooperation rather than mutually beneficial relationships.

Whether manager or employee, you are likely to get more of what you want if you learn how to exercise influence rather than power. Sometimes confrontation is necessary, but is best used after all else has been tried. Old-style managers and union leaders would do well to take note! Many of the examples of assertiveness versus aggressiveness on page apply to the workplace.

Rational Effectiveness Training at work

How RET can enhance the effectiveness of your workplace

The emotional control and behavioural-change techniques of rational effectiveness training can help your workplace in two main ways. First, if people are able to control dysfunctional emotions, they will experience less distress and be free to use their emotional energy more productively. Second, RET can help people use essential workplace skills that are often blocked by self-defeating thinking:

  • Conflict management becomes more effective when the blocks to assertiveness are confronted.
  • Time management is facilitated by dealing with avoidance and low frustration-tolerance.
  • Communication skills improve when managers and staff deal with the tension and low frustration-tolerance that arises from beliefs like: ‘I must always look good in front of my colleagues’; ‘I must always receive the approval of my superiors’; ‘My subordinates must never think badly of me’; and ‘I should be able to communicate better’.
  • Delivering performance appraisals is facilitated when managers deal with the self-defeating beliefs that block them from giving accurate feedback to employees. They can address their own high needs for approval, overconcern with negative reactions by employees, and self-downing about their management performance.
  • Effective leadership becomes a reality when managers develop flexible attitudes and an adaptive, change-oriented approach to new programmes and ideas.
  • Creative decision-making becomes possible when internal blocks to change are addressed, especially self-defeating beliefs like: ‘We can’t move ahead unless we are sure of success’; ‘Profits must always go up’; ‘I must always receive positive feedback from my superiors’; or ‘My employees must perceive me as a nice person’.

RET will improve performance - not lower it

Helping people learn new ways of dealing with their emotions and stress will in the long run increase their performance and effectiveness. Perfectionism, for example, paradoxically hinders excellence. Fears of failure or what others will think blocks people from trying their hand at new things. High levels of anxiety slow people down and distract them from problem-solving. Hostility and resentment hinder effective teamwork.

The time you put into rational effectiveness training will be time well-spent. It facilitates problem-solving and task-completion rather than avoidance. It is aimed to help people achieve excellence - and distress-free enjoyment.

We can best sum this up by seeing how the twelve rational principles may be applied to achieving effectiveness in the workplace.

Applying the 12 principles

(The Twelve Rational Principles are contained in GoodStress and are also on this website).


  • Know what you don’t know. Acknowledging your lacks will keep you on the watch for new knowledge to improve your effectiveness.
  • Know what you are suited to. A high-energy, risk and stimulation-loving person will experience distress in a boring, repetitive job; alternatively, a low-energy, safety-conscious person will not cope well in a high-flying job.
  • If you know yourself and your desires and weaknesses, you will be better able to maintain appropriate and safe boundaries in the workplace.
  • Be clear about your limits. Be able to extend yourself, but know when to ease off so you keep well clear of burnout.

Self-acceptance and confidence

  • If you accept yourself without self-rating, you will be able to take and use feedback - including constructive criticism - without defensiveness.
  • Confidence in specific abilities will enable you to use them to the maximum to achieve your goals and make yourself marketable to employers.
  • Managers who do not need external evidence of their ‘worthwhileness’ will have less difficulty with the new participation model, because they will not worry that it strips them of their power and authority.

Enlightened self-interest

  • Make time to be supportive to others - then you will be supported in turn.
  • Are you a two-career couple? Facilitating your partner’s career will make it more likely they will facilitate yours.
  • If you are a manager, consultation and power-sharing will be in your interests in the long-run. Help staff feel valued and in control of their work situation by being positive in your dealings with them. Emphasise what you want rather than what you don’t. Use control only when there is no valid alternative. Avoid angry reactions and handle complaints in a constructive way. Give - and receive - positive feedback. Acknowledge and reward special efforts. Helping your staff feel in control will keep you in control.

Tolerance for frustration and discomfort

  • Receiving critical feedback on your performance is how you will learn and improve and increase your work satisfaction. See the discomfort as unpleasant but tolerable - and worth the gain.
  • If you are a manager, accept the realities involved with the role. You will receive criticism from others. You will sometimes end up with responsibility for other peoples’ mistakes. The smooth functioning of your operation will be disrupted from time to time. If you see these things as inevitable and uncomfortable, rather than intolerable and unbearable, you will be better able to take them in your stride.

Long-range enjoyment

  • Rapid changes in the marketplace require a focus on the long-term, and confident leadership able to resist pressure for short-term gains.
  • Participatory decision-making may sometimes take longer - but it will save time in the long run when people make an ongoing commitment to what is decided.
  • In the short-run, you may prefer to be up-to-date with your paperwork - but taking time to support your co-workers will benefit you more in the long-term.
  • Confrontation may seem like the quickest way to get what you want - and sometimes this will be the case - but winning people over with reasoning and friendliness will get you more in the long run.


  • Sometimes businesses do go to the wall - but few would get off the ground if someone with a vision was not prepared to take a step of faith to make it a reality.
  • Decisions will not always be black and white. Sometimes you may have to go with the most likely option, without certainty of success. If you have trouble with this, remind yourself of the consequences of not making a decision.


  • To avoid burnout, watch for obsessiveness or over-involvement with your work. Take regular breaks, especially when you feel a compulsion to keep on working. Go home when your colleagues do. Keep your work in balance with the rest of your life.
  • Adopt a moderate approach to your dealings with co-workers and subordinates. Reasonableness and negotiation will get you a less stressful environment.
  • Maintain appropriate boundaries. Be friendly, socialise and have mutual support with coworkers or subordinates, but keep within limits that protect you and them.

Emotional and behavioural responsibility

  • Take responsibility for how you feel about your work and your responses to how you are treated. There may be dysfunctional elements to your workplace, but blaming will just keep you a victim - and set you up for burnout.
  • Emotional responsibility can reduce the time and energy workers and managers spend on self-defeating reactions to frustrating circumstances, and help them get looking for solutions.

Self-direction and commitment

  • Workers are more likely to feel distress when there is a lack of power, too much or too little work, under- or over-promotion, authority that does not match responsibilities, objectives or requirements that are unclear, conflict between multiple job demands, or inadequate training.
    Are you unsure what is expected of you in your job? If so, get clarification of what you are supposed to be achieving. If you lack the necessary training, ask for it or seek it out yourself. Decide what changes to your role you would like, and negotiate on these.
  • Self-directed people don’t wait for things to happen or other people to do things to them. They see problems and initiate action and change. If they want support, they go and get it. In turn, they watch out for colleagues who may be under extra stress and offer to lend a hand.
  • Self-directed people do not feel a need to compete with their peers - they know what they want and work toward getting it, without envying what others are getting. Non-competitiveness means freedom to have mutually-supportive relationships with colleagues.


Flexibility aids survival in organisations:

  • The modern workplace is characterised by significant changes in the composition of the work force. There are, for example, increasing numbers of women and minorities who bring to organisations new and different values, desires, and goals. This requires organisations to be flexible and adaptive, and free of rigid, absolutistic attitudes that interfere with cooperation and problem-solving.
  • There is a new level of major international competition. Businesses must be alert to changes in the marketplace and able to respond quickly or even anticipate them.
  • New technology means old ways of doing things are no longer relevant. Resistance to change can be costly. It can trigger distress for many people in an organisation, and sometimes even lead to organisational failure. Anticipating change rather than simply waiting for it to happen, as Bartol and Martin have pointed out, can significantly reduce any negative impact.
  • Research has found that managers who do not cope well with stress fear change and tend to be inflexible and lower in problem-solving skills. Those who cope better see organisational changes as challenges rather than threats, are highly flexible and adaptable, and are willing to try new ways of dealing with problems. Effective supervisors, rather than dictating procedures and allowing no flexibility, explain the aims of a job and guidelines for achieving these in a general fashion, leaving staff to accomplish the goals in their own way.

Objective thinking

  • The modern business setting is not a place for magical thinking. Feet on the ground is necessary for commercial survival. Make sure you are in touch with reality.
  • Especially get rid of any myths about how human beings work. Study psychology. Know how to get the best out of people by appealing to their enlightened self-interest rather than moralising about what they ‘should’ do.

Acceptance of reality

Finally, be able to roll with the punches, as they say. No matter how well you do as an employee, an executive, or as the boss, you are unlikely to succeed at everything to which you set your hand. Acceptance of reality will help you avoid overreacting when things don’t work out, and instead of railing against fate, to pick yourself up and start over.

Further reading on workplace effectiveness

Bramson, Robert M. Coping with the Fast Track Blues. Doubleday, New York, 1990.

Colbert, Audrey. Dealing with Sexual Harassment: A New Zealand handbook for employers/employees, students and educators. GP Books, Wellington, 1989.

Cuozzo, Jane Hershey and Graham, S. Diane. Side by Side Strategies: How two-career couples can thrive in the nineties. Mastermedia Limited, New York, 1990.

Ellis, Albert. Executive Leadership: A rational approach. Institute for Rational Living, New York, 1972.

Hilsgen, Laurie and Vause, Helen. Working From Home in New Zealand. GP Publications Ltd, Wellington, 1993.

Ingham, Christine. Life Without Work: A time for change, growth and personal transformation. HarperCollins Publishers, London, 1994.