Many of the senior leaders I meet in my work tend to be well versed in dealing with stress. A combination of learnt behaviours and coping mechanisms, when added to natural capacity, gives a higher tolerance than most. Some people even like pressure of being up against the clock, and deal with stressful situations very well.
However, I also work with a lot of frazzled teams, looking for solutions to the challenge of mounting tasks and limited resources. According to the Health and Safety Executive, stress accounts for 43% of all working days lost due to ill health, bringing the total number of work related stress, depression and anxiety cases to 440,000. It costs the UK economy around £6.5 billion every year. Tight deadlines, too much responsibility and lack of managerial support are the main factors cited. Organisations clearly need to face this epidemic head on and deal more effectively with these worrying trends and the serious impact they have on the bottom line. One very effective way of doing this is to help people change the way they think about, and respond to, stress.
Identify the root cause
For the general workforce, it’s often workload and poor leadership and guidance that seem to be the contributing factors to excessive stress levels. For the most part, the solutions lie in helping people to see the bigger picture. When they recognise that they are creating and feeding the stress internally, it can bring about huge breakthroughs and changes in attitude, behaviour and subsequently performance.
It’s important to be aware that work related stress seems to be more prevalent across different demographics and therefore a different approach may be necessary for each audience. The 35-54 age group is at highest risk of work related stress – presumably as careers progress, responsibilities increase and health problems begin at the mature end of this age range. Women are also more affected than men. However, Millennials now report more stress than any other generation – claiming it’s the abundance of choice and opportunities and worry over making the right decision or FOBO (Fear of Better Options). I’m very aware, when I work with employers and individuals, that I tailor any stress management solutions to suit the audience’s different stress triggers.
The fight or flight response was very useful for cavemen or women; triggering a natural physical reaction to physical threat. However today, we’re quite often locked in a perpetual state of fight or flight and our bodies don’t use this quick survival response in the way it was intended. Instead of responding to a hungry tiger, it’s missing a deadline, rush-hour traffic, unclear expectations, family pressures or a bullying boss.
Stress is a product of fear. And fear is a learnt response to a stimulus (the tiger) and puts us into a high state of anxiety, which brings about a desire to avoid something (run for our lives) and a feeling of loss of control. It’s easy to see how this reaction can have serious consequences. Prolonged adrenaline, a surge of stress hormones in the blood stream can soon turn to memory loss, amnesia, sickness, tiredness, irrational behaviour, inability to deal with minor issues, over or under eating, skin problems, stomach, panic attacks and even heart problems.
Today in the workplace, rather than a physical immediate action, it shows itself in different ways and pressure builds up, people shut down and get angry or irritable. They become unproductive and confidence drops, which in turn feeds the stress. It also has a knock-on effect of the people closest to you – your biggest natural source of support – when you’re unable to switch off when you get home.
Tell a different story
I believe if we tell ourselves a different story and approach work with a new perspective, it’s possible to neutralise the negative effects of stress. What if the objective becomes to see ‘stress’ as just a word? When I work with leaders and their teams to better cope with workplace pressure, I challenge their thinking about stress. Here are my top tips for resolving feelings of stress:
1. Stress isn’t bad – Here’s the good news. Stress is just a word. Easy to say. But it really is about how we manage the triggers and work out how to use any resultant stress effectively. Stress in itself isn’t bad. We actually need it to be motivated. Pressure pushes us to high performance, it gives us more energy and our senses become heightened, we’re able to absorb information faster. Without it we’d be complacent, bored and boring. High performance athletes, public speakers, musicians and actors are all able to recognise stress and develop coping strategies. But many of us lose the ability to think positively and change our responses in a rational way.
2. Recognising the signs – One of the most common issues is the difficulties leaders have in recognising stress and workplace pressure in their teams. Leaders often assume that if they can deal with it, then other people can. Some people view it as a weakness and find it difficult to talk about, so leaders have to make sure everyone they work with has the tools to cope, and open channels of communication. Many of the leaders that I have worked with recognise the value in making a third party available for their teams in the form of a coach or mentor. Talking it through and really listening helps because when people feel they are being heard it calms the level of anxiety and enables them to think rationally and carefully.
3. Look inside – Introspection is the key; that’s how we understand good and bad stress. Typically, people push it away when they should deal with it head on, embrace it and try to understand it. We’ve all put off starting a major, high profile piece of work, in favour of much less important tasks – even though we know we’ll have to face it in the end!
Remember that not all stress is equal – being late in submitting a document for your manager is different from your car bursting into flames in a lion enclosure (as happened a couple of years ago to a woman and her children in Longleat Safari Park, UK)! Nonetheless, the response is often the same physiology – it’s second nature to respond that way. But something is only ‘second nature’ because you are so familiar with responding in that way that you do it without thinking. It really is about how you consciously think about a situation; so it’s vital to assess how you’re feeling and recognise the unproductive elements in your response.
4. Seek a better outcome from stress – Leaders need to work closely with their managers and learning and development departments to identify the skills, knowledge and tools their team members need to affect a better outcome. They need to work together collaboratively to assess what can and can’t be changed – and then make sure they identify any rewards from focusing on new behaviour and benefits gained from fixing it.
I often draw on the trusted work of Stephen Covey and his famous Circle of Influence; the fundamental gift is to learn to let go of the things you can’t do anything about and in the moment of stress, breathe slowly and deliberately, step away and think. Encouraging regular exercise, meditation and mindfulness in teams is vital – we can’t perform without regular rest and recuperation. People should be encouraged to switch off from emails and business messages when they are at home (leaders need to model this behaviour too!)
Google is often referred to as the epitome of a great employer, but the company recognises that even its employees aren’t immune to daily stress. To combat this, Google offers specific classes to employees to help them deal with stress, as well as community that encourages meditation. Many other companies are following suit, as well as promoting healthy habits such as walking, fitness challenges and eating well for energy.
5. Keep checking in – Many ‘stress response’ behaviours are deeply embedded and often there is no quick fix. When teaching stress management techniques, I follow up with the individuals I’ve worked with because it’s vital to ensure skills learnt can be consistently transferred to the day-to-day environment. Often if someone is buried under pressure, they don’t always recognise that they have slipped back into old ways of thinking. I coach leaders to keep channels of communication open and develop the emotional intelligence to improve their awareness of others and recognise the causes and symptoms of stress.
Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers by Robert M Sapolsky.