What is the main cause of work place stress?
Modern work life generally means ‘faster than’ before and ‘more of’ than before. The ‘jargonistas’ call these dynamism and complexity. Research shows those people who know how to cope with stress at work survive with (or even thrive with) ‘faster than’ and ‘more of’. Well, at least better than those (most of us) that aren’t coping very well with the the pace and amount of change. It is the number one indicator of under performance in every role.
Just look at most people’s work load and the demands being made of them. “I want it yesterday!” and “Here are another three things to put on top of the five things you are already working on and haven’t yet had time to finish.” These are examples of “faster than” and “more of” – recognise them?
How does stress manifest it self in us?
These two workplace factors (‘faster than’ and ‘more of’) have an impact on us all and we (being human) get stressed in three ways.
Physical stress – We twist our ankle running for the train (ouch!) or over time we develop a 25 degree forward tilt in our neck, (predictor of Parkinson’s in later life!), from looking at a tablet, laptop or mobile screen. Did everyone just sit up straighter! Our muscles tire, our joints ache, we lack energy, we physically begin to suffer.
Chemical stress – We wash down our micro-waved, gluten laden, salt and sugar filled, 4-minute, ready meal at our desk with a ‘Diet’ drink if it’s a snatched lunchtime – or cheap half-bottle of Chardonnay if its in the evening (Sending chemical shocks to about every system and organ we have including to the vital ones like the nervous system and gut – ‘nuking’ our brains and microbiome!). Then because we eat and drink s**t, we get ill and on doctor’s advice we then ‘blanket bomb’ what’s left of the system with prescription drugs! You get the picture.
Emotional Stress – well where do I begin, as we roller-coaster from supercharged Frustrated, Angry, Anxious to undercharged Apathy, Detachment, Depression to gushing Positivity, Determination, Red Hot Passion to Zen-like Tranquility, Contentment… and back round again. A constant emotional fairground-ride with heart thumping, pulse racing ‘highs’ and ‘stomach churning’, nauseating ‘lows’ (aswell as the long tedious, boring bits) Most of us doing this blindfolded and not in control at all. Just waiting for the next dip, or climb, or rush as we open our mailbox; walk into the meeting; confront our difficult colleague or admit our limitations.
Humans are naturally, well adapted to deal with all three stresses – to an extent anyway. As a species we are generally great at: repairing Physical Stresses (bones and tissues repair); balancing or neutralising the imbalances of Chemical stress (especially with a healthy immune system) and providing resilience to Emotional Stress (in all sorts of ways including through our relationships). So should we even worry about it?
Is stress ever a good thing?
Sure, you need some stress in any system or structure for it to perform. That goes for the building you’re sat in now, the bridge your train crossed this morning on your way to work and well, every human being. The building, bridge and human being are all designed with certain amount of stress in the plan. Which ever of these structures you’re looking at there are two really key issues.
Firstly, what is the maximum stress load of the structure (building, bridge or being)? In other words what is our capacity to cope?
Secondly, how do we know before we reach the point of overload? Once we are beyond this point it can be a fast, slippery slope to collapse.
This is what the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, Washington, USA looked liked on the 6th November 1940:
Any signs of stress!
The next day, 7th November 1940, a windy day, this it what it looked like:
The stress was just too much! The Pathe News video is great viewing.
This analogy for the human system illustrates the problem. Everything seems fine one day, then something changes and suddenly we move quickly to over-stressed and then collapse. Slippery slope!
So how do we know if we are over-stressed or not?
We all know awareness is always key to any change in our behaviour right? We need to notice something, if we are going to change it, simples! (if you’re waiting for rocket science you’re not going to get it!) But the downward, slippery slope of stress presents a problem. We quickly get into self-denial even at the first signs and lose the ability to be self-aware. Asking the bridge to self-diagnose when the wind picks up (I’m sticking with the analogy – like it or not!) is usually useless.
“Of course I’m all right!”, “Yes, of course I am on top of things”, “Yes, I know its nearly 8pm and I’m still at the office! But its just this time” , “Yes, I know I promised I’d be home to read Johnny his bedtime story. But its just a one-off”. Shall I go on? No? You’ve got the picture. We carry on believing it’ll come right but the “light at the end of the tunnel” is never reached! We are in denial a lot of the time.
So, if this self-denial (and therefore an inability to even be aware of over stress) kicks in early, how on earth do we pull ourselves back once we are just on the wrong side of the brink. Well more often than not it requires somebody else not only to notice for us but then to have the courage and compassion to help.
We are human beings right! We work and live with each other. We need to have each other’s back, especially those closest to us or those who might rely on us. The bridge needs its engineer and probably these days some fancy technology to notice signs that are indicators of potentially bigger problems to come.
Are there signs that show someone is suffering from stress?
Interestingly, in us humans the signs follow a pretty predictable path. We have already mentioned the first step onto the downward slope – self denial!
“Why are you looking at me like that. I TOLD YOU EVERYTHING’S OK!”.
Step 2 is always some sort of performance issues. This can be at the office, in the bedroom, in the kitchen. Sometimes these are serious performance issues but often small things that never used to happen, a slip up here, a missed deadline there. Not always glaringly obvious but noticeably different to people around us. Remember we are in self-denial so we don’t notice or we find other reasons and excuses. The simple ‘must try harder’ is not usually enough here. We are already losing grip on the downward slope.
Next comes step 3, usually some safety issues. Things get bumped, pranged, twisted, dropped or ignored causing some danger to you or those around you. It may be distractions, bad decisions or choices. People can get hurt, its starting to be a bit more obvious and serious!
These issues are then often quickly followed by step 4 another group of health related issues. These may sometimes be small changes that could be explained by something else but are symptoms are of underlying stress.
You only have to look at ‘before and after’ pictures of our world leaders to clearly see some of the outward signs of stress that are manifest physically very quickly.
One of the biggest indicators with many people is sleep. If someone is telling you they are not sleeping well, (unless they are camping out at the time! or they’ve just bought a bargain £39 mattress online!), then there is almost certainly stress in the system somewhere.
I’ll be talking about sleep in a future blog – it deserves much more attention because its soooooooo important!
If you think about it, we largely spend our modern lives either awake in fight/flight mode (adrenaline and cortisol coursing through our veins) or asleep in rest/digest/repair mode and guess what? If we have disrupted sleep we don’t rest, digest and repair properly! (I told you you wouldn’t get rocket science!)
Human bodies are amazingly evolved systems and much better than the bridges we build, at repairing themselves. BUT if we cut out good sleep the cracks go unrepaired, remain and get bigger. (warned you about the analogy too – get over it!). If the next time you go to a your doctor for some minor ailment, if the first question is not “How are you sleeping?” change your doctor! And don’t take drugs either for a goods night sleep! (Rant over!)
If after self-denial, performance issues, safety issues and health issues we still haven’t taken some action collapse is imminent.
It can happen quickly. Remember poor Antonio Horta Osario the hero of Santander Bank in the crisis of 2008,who joined Lloyds Bank as a smart, healthy, vibrant, confident, experienced CEO in March 2011 (picture left) and by September, just six months later (picture right) was ordered to take enforced leave and eventually quit after reported collapse due to stress and fatigue. £930 million was wiped off Lloyds share value that day! Who said you couldn’t put a price on your health! (But you try being an HR Director trying to get a £50,000 budget for a stress management programme for its leaders! “Can you demonstrate ROI?” Duh!)
We don’t have to be so helpless to just hope someone is going to notice for us and do something. Most of us find ourselves in the self-denial place at different times. I used to convince myself (and still occasionally do) that I cope well with stress. “People have told me so” I would declare. “Cool under pressure that Keith”. Really?
So what can help people me notice and deal with stress?
Interestingly, there was something I realised that did work for me which I din’t find reading the books (there’s been quite a few of those!) and Googling.
In my role both when I had a team and also with clients as a coach / consultant, I spent time with people in very stressful situations coping or not coping in various ways. I noticed when I found myself helping others to manage their own stress, I often found myself thinking and noticing things about myself. I became more in tune with my own emotions, in fact much more when I was coaching or helping others through their issues. Weird huh! But actually effective. Once I realised this I made a habit of it.
Whatever your own situation (whether you know it or not) it is always improved when you start to help others. Try it! Reach out to someone you suspect might be stressed and in denial and maybe on the downward slope. Be a support to them, listen and show some compassion. Then notice yourself. Some of what you are saying to them turn back on yourself. Notice the signs. It’s quite empowering!
The first thing people need to do when they notice stress is to get back on the upward slope. This requires reducing the load. You have to reduce your load and / or help someone else reduce theirs. They go hand in hand. You can’t hope to hope to reduce stress while maintaining or increasing load (where’s a physics graduate when you need one?) it doesn’t work. We have to do this first before we use positive strategies of development which I mention later.
What is empowering about managing your stress?
Firstly, You have choices! Yes, I’ll say it again, YOU DECIDE! Exercising those choices will give you back control. The world might be presenting us with ‘faster than’ and ‘more of’ as we mentioned at the beginning but we are not victims or slaves to those.
You have choices. You can say NO! You can decide to eat different things. You can decide when you go to bed and when you get up (new parents with brand new babies aside! No sympathy your choice was much earlier in that particular process!)
You can decide to miss the rush hour or leave more time to get that meeting. You can decide that there is more to life than a bigger car, or mortgage or promotion or time spent with loved ones.
At work we need to find ways to have ‘adult’ conversations about what it is reasonable to expect and what you are prepared to do so your health isn’t compromised. We need to challenge our managers and managers need to be understanding and flexible. We need to be ruthless with our diaries and block out time for travelling, reflecting, thinking, resting, laughing, walking and talking. Not just fit them in when we can. Start to try it. Look at next weeks diary and take back 90 minutes each day to do what you want to do.
Beyond just ‘coping’ better what else can you do?
Like the bridge in the earlier analogy, performance under stress can be improved by increasing capacity (able to handle more load), endurance (ability to sustain performance over time), resilience (ability to recover and ‘bounce’ back) flexibility, (willingness and ability to change, adapt and ‘flex’ without breaking).
These abilities don’t just come to us and they aren’t cured with a magic pill. We have to learn and develop. We have to try new things, fail, improve and gradually build our capacity, endurance, resilience and flexibility.
There are many ways to improve ourselves and many people find it easier to have some sort of goal, so you can notice your achievements and plan, so you can practice. Remember you are in control and decide what it is you will work on first or what is likely to give you the best return given your own goals.
The world isn’t stopping any time soon and so unless we are doing something about managing our stress and improving our ability to withstand the pressures, then we are just waiting for that big wind to come and blow us over. I have recommended some reading and there are some other good, affordable online courses available.
Here is a really simple approach to taking back control. Try is as soon as you have watched the video. Take action.
So to summarise
- Change in the outside world in the form of ‘faster’ and ‘more of’ is impacting all our work lives and making them more stressful
- Stress is needed to perform but once we are passed the peak and get over-stressed it can be a slippery downward slope to collapse
- There are four steps before collapse that we can notice about ourselves and others: 1) Self-denial, 2) Performance Issues, 3) Safety Issues, 4) Health Issues
- Friends and colleagues can help each other by noticing these signs and not ignoring them. Show understanding and compassion. Help take away the load that’s causing the stress
- There are three types of stress 1) Physical, 2) Chemical and 3) Emotional and while stuff happens around us we are more in control than we often like to believe. Start to notice and be aware of your own ‘system’. Which bits are under most stress?
- Help someone else. Don’t stand by and watch someone in trouble even if they are in self denial. When helping notice yourself.
- Say NO more often, be ruthless with your diary and plan in more reflection, thinking, fun, walking and travel time. Take back control.
- Plan to develop and improve aspects of your capacity, endurance, resilience and flexibility. Get help, have fun, move and improve!
Some of my favourite books and audio books on stress
If you need more than a read try perhaps an online programme.
If you need some more inspiration here is a great Ted Talk by Kelly McGonigal on “Making Stress Your Friend”.
For others it maybe we need a good work out to alleviate the stress.
Let me know what you think with any comments, experiences, ideas, challenges or questions below.