Few jobs today are stress-free or even low-stress: not enough resources, not enough people, normal organizational politics and conflicts, reorganizations and layoffs, clashes between work and family demands, the speed and volume of information (and how it’s delivered). Workplace stress has been the new normal for at least the last two decades (I’m old enough to know it wasn’t always this way).
We relieve stress in different ways. We exercise. We pursue unusual hobbies or avocations. We travel (involving its own kind of stress, especially at airports). We quit organizational work life. And we drink, overeat, get sick and sometimes die from stress. Recently, I had the painful experience of a ruptured disk in my back; my doctor connected it directly to stress in my job.
We cope as best we can. I’ve found that poetry helps reduce stress at work, in five specific ways.
1. Read Poetry
Every Day Poems makes it easy by delivering a poem a day by email. Reading a single poem is easily manageable. In addition to Every Day Poems, I read poets—new and old, dead and living—to the extent my schedule allows. Sometimes it’s only a poem or two. And sometimes it’s a book of new poems read in one sitting.
Reading poetry does several things for me. It focuses my mind well away from the immediate stresses in my work life. It presents an idea of subject or theme in a way entirely differently from my usual work experience, challenging my mind to think differently. And reading poetry moves me to a different means of expression by presenting its ideas in a different way and format. Reading a poem costs nothing in terms of commitment or action—unless you want it to do that.
2. Take a Poem Apart
I will take a poem, usually a short one, and take it apart (the official term for this might be “explicate”). Why does it start that way? What images does it evoke? Why are phrases used that way? Why use that word, when another would have been sufficient or even better? What idea is it trying to convey, and does it work? Or could it work better said some other way?
3. Speak Poetry
That is, I read a poem out loud. You may think you understand a poem when you read it, but when you read it aloud, it can change. I find this utterly fascinating—how human speech combining with written words can transform meaning and understanding. Speaking a poem out loud also offers (usually) a kind of soothing rhythm, eddies of calmness in a chaotic work day.
4. Listen in Poetry
No matter what kind of job we have, at one time or another we find ourselves in meetings. I go to lots of meetings. Lots. About two years ago, I started “listening in poetry” at meetings and presentations, and even taking notes in poetic forms. My notes are not poems, but they are structured like poems.
Writing notes like poems allows me to chunk statements and my ideas, organize my thoughts, and often organize and structure my responses. It makes the time spent in meetings more productive and interesting, and even allows me to feel slightly rebellious (in a good way, of course). The easiest way to try this is with the ubiquitous PowerPoint presentation—look at bullet points as lines in a poem and edit accordingly.
5. Write Poetry
I write poetry, and sometimes the purpose is to deal with workplace stress. Organizational work life can provide great fodder for poems. So, for example, I’ll take a problem I’m wrestling with and write it out as poem. Or a conflict. Or a success or failure or mistake. If it does nothing else, it helps me make sense of a situation, an event, or even a person.
Poetry is not a cure-all for workplace stress. But it is one constructive way to deal with it, and cheaper than doctors, physical therapy and psychiatrists.
And perhaps—just perhaps—it can help produce something good from the stress—something of value, and even beauty.
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- The Enduring Appeal of “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” - January 4, 2022