Picture this: It's 4:05 p.m. and the boss is preparing to rush to the airport to catch a 5:30 flight. He has just asked you to photocopy a stack of documents. But the copier is balking, producing barely readable print.
Meanwhile, an associate has a client waiting and has asked you to locate a file. The phone is ringing incessantly; the last caller was rude.
And you still have to finish several letters before the last mail goes out.
It's S-T-R-E-S-S time for secretaries!
This is National Secretaries Week, and Wednesday is National Secretaries Day, and that may mean flowers or lunch with the boss. But during the rest of the year, the reality can be much more grim: Recent surveys indicate that secretaries are experiencing more and more stress on the job, and are suffering lingering consequences.
"With computers and modern technology, stress has increased significantly," observes Lin Chronister, a secretary for 25 years, the last seven with the Westinghouse Materials Acquisition Center near BWI Airport, and president of the local chapter of Professional Secretaries International (PSI).
"We're able to do routine work much faster, but now many more administrative responsibilities are being put on secretaries than in the past."
A study of 1,000 secretaries conducted by Panasonic Industrial Company's Electronic Typewriter Division and PSI shows that personal computers cause stress in three to six times as many secretaries as does conventional office equipment.
Of course, the nature of stress differs from office to office, depending on the job environment and the relationship between the secretary and her supervisor. Deadlines -- especially unexpected deadlines -- are frequently mentioned as a source of stress.
Dottie Cadden, secretary at Central Atlantic Toyota Distributors in Glen Burnie, finds that upper management is often guilty of such last-minute assignments.
"They're on a deadline, ready to rush out of the door, and they ask me to input something into the computer or to get a printout," she says. "They don't realize it takes time. Other things are being printed. It's a real battle."
Secretaries often face competing deadlines, imposed by different bosses. Only the top 10 percent of the nation's executives now have their own secretaries, according to Brenda Hersh, chairwoman of the business department at Queensborough Community College in New York, writing in the March issue of The Secretary. The remainder work for multiple bosses, compounding the stress.
"Deadlines can be especially stressful when they all have to be done at the same time," notes Angela Eastridge, secretary at Lewis Advertising in Baltimore. Fifteen years on the job has helped her cope by providing insight into which task needs to be done first and who the chronic deadline offender is.
At the Community College of Baltimore, Candace Lucas, secretary to CCB President Dr. James Tsehechtelin, finds the telephone the bane of her workday. Most irritating are irate callers, who resort to rudeness.
"Everybody wants to meet with the president even though someone else can handle their problem better," she says. "You have to be tactful with those people. You don't want to respond in kind."
The Panasonic/PSI study reports that answering the phone is the single most stressful activity, causing great or moderate amounts of stress among 29 percent of the secretaries surveyed. The same study notes that Mondays and Fridays are the most stressful days of the week, with Wednesday the calmest day. The hours between 4 and 6 p.m. are the most hectic.
Because of the diverse demands of the job, secretaries are in danger of evolving into the "Type E Woman," the designation of Los Angeles psychologist Harriet B. Braiker for the woman who tries to be "everything to everyone." The result invariably is stress, frustration and possibly an inner sense of failure.
A study carried out for Prime Learning International, a training firm promoting professional excellence in support staff and based in Alpine, Utah, found that secretaries experienced lower self-esteem and had greater need for the approval of others than the general population.
They also suffered from more symptoms linked to stress than average.
The condition stems in part from the feeling of lack of control on the job, say experts.
"A lot is demanded of secretaries, and accompanying that demand is the relatively low degree of control they have over their work situation," explains Dr. Annelle Primm, assistant professor of psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, who will be leading a section on stress Wednesday and Thursday at a seminar for secretaries at Catonsville Community College.
"It's hard for them to rein in the job in a way that would suit them. They're rendered almost helpless, and undergo a great deal of stress compared to others in the work force. That may lead to both physical and mental consequences."