I Can’t Stress This Enough

As published nationwide in the Business Journal Newspapers

When I am asked to work with a group of employees, I am often tasked with introducing a new set of behaviors that the company wants followed. Lately, the inevitable response from employees has been, “How am I supposed to do all this new stuff while trying to keep up with my current duties.” The problem is so pervasive that I am often warned by leaders ahead of time to be ready for this kind of push-back. This is a signal that leadership has a problem. They are aware enough of a problem that they warn me about it, but they haven’t fixed it. And the problem is stress.

The first step is to recognize the kind of stress your employees are feeling. Situational stress is the occasional sweat you feel when faced with a challenge. Adrenaline and cortisol flood your body; your muscles tighten, blood pressure rises, and all bodily systems are tuned up for a showdown. This kind of stress is actually beneficial. It helps us focus on a challenge rather than run from it. Situational stress is not the problem; chronic stress is.

The problem with the human brain is that it has trouble distinguishing between a physical threat and an emotional one; so, it treats all stress the same. And prolonged periods of physical stress lead to depression, anxiety, loss of sleep, memory loss, and cognitive impairment; not to mention physical ailments affecting weight, heart disease, and the autoimmune system. Any leader can see how chronic stress has become the biggest killer of workplace productivity since Facebook.

Here is the simplest way to understand stress, and why many leaders don’t effectively manage for it. Pick up a glass of water and hold it at arm’s length. How heavy is it? Probably not much. Now hold that glass of water for four hours. How heavy is it now? Stress is not the weight of an issue or a task, it is the cumulative effect of that weight over time. Many leaders determine likely stress levels on employees by evaluating individual tasks, without considering the cumulative effect of everything the employee must accomplish each day. Leaders also mistakenly believe that an occasional employee happy hour is enough to solve the problem. Yes, bustin’ out every now and then is a good way to blow off steam, but the brain responds better when we mitigate stressors rather than provide momentary excitors. In short, it is better to lower pain than heighten pleasure; mainly because pleasure doesn’t solve the problem, it only masks it.

Another challenge to leaders is figuring out why two people can have the same experience and only one experiences stress. The mistake is to think that one person can handle stress better than the other. It is true that some people are better equipped to handle long-term pressure without developing chronic stress, but it is not a measure of their fortitude, it is an outcome of several circumstances. One stress mitigator is a person’s overall outlook. Scientists have discovered that parents pass on their happiness quotient to their babies through DNA. The brain is not born as a blank slate, and DNA kicks off the way we view the world. Luckily, we can change this outlook throughout life through conscious effort.

Other stress mitigators include physical health, emotional control, and the level of knowledge and preparation one has concerning the task at hand. But, two other factors are equally important for leaders to manage: support network, and sense of control. The interesting thing about these factors is that perception is just as important as reality. If a person perceives that they have people in the wings ready to support them in times of need, they feel less stress; even if they never have to use those support folks.

Notice that sense of control mitigates stress just as much as actually having it. To humans, perception is reality (just look at politics, lately). If an employee feels more control over his or her situation, stress levels drop. This is great news for leaders who are already good at asking employees for input; and listening when they give it. If you are a leader who isn’t good at involving your staff, I would be stressed about it.

 

Stevie Ray is a nationally recognized corporate speaker and trainer, helping companies improve communication skills, customer service, leadership, and team management.  He can be reached at www.stevierays.org or stevie@stevierays.org.

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