Stress Insights: find your best life by understanding and learning from stress
Stress Insights by the Good Life Work Project
"A strange new disease has found its way into the lives of Americans and into the lives of people in other highly industrialised nations of the world. It has been steadily growing, affecting more people with ever more serious consequences. It is now reaching epidemic proportions...The symptoms range from headache to heart attack, from indigestion to stroke, from fatigue to high blood pressure and organ failure, from dermatitis to bleeding ulcers. This disease is exacting a steadily increasing toll of human health and emotional wellbeing. It is not really a disease in itself, but, rather, a runaway condition."
The above quote could be about COVID-19, but it's not; it is about stress and was written over 40 years ago by Karl Albrecht in his book, Stress and the Manager.
One of the most significant challenges you might face as a leader or manager of people is understanding stress, both for yourself and your teams. To turn stress from a challenge to an opportunity, you need to both understand and learn from it.
We are writing this during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has increased a feeling of stress for just about everyone. We introduce four key stressors in this blog, and you'll notice that all four are colliding, which is heightening emotions and negative feelings the world over.
From the stress of uncertainty to the squeeze on our time brought about by demands of homeschooling while continuing to work from home, by understanding what is happening to you, you can learn to beat it.
Is stress a weakness or an opportunity to learn?
Leaders and managers often convince themselves that they need to be invincible, and any vulnerability is a sign of weakness. Stress is a vulnerability that they will not acknowledge, to their detriment and the cost of others. These pseudo-superhuman leaders and managers then project these expectations onto their teams. In doing so, they decrease team wellbeing, engagement, productivity, creativity, trust and loyalty, the very things they need to be successful.
According to the UK Health and Safety Executive (HSE), 602,000 workers in the UK suffer from stress or anxiety. Furthermore, a Labour Force Survey found that the UK loses 12.8 million workdays to stress and anxiety each year. The HSE reports that between 11 and 14% of UK Managers, Directors and Senior Officials suffer from stress and anxiety.
Significantly, women exhibit statistically significant higher rates of stress and anxiety: men = 14-16% | women = 19-21%. Interestingly, the larger the workplace, the higher the percentage of stress and anxiety: small organisations = 10-12% | large organisations = 18-22%.
Stress is a challenge on a global scale. For example, According to the United States Institute of Stress:
US businesses lose up to $300 billion yearly as a result of workplace stress.
83% of US workers suffer from work-related stress.
Stress causes around one million workers to miss work every day.
Only 43% of US employees think their employers care about their work-life balance.
Depression leads to $51 billion in costs due to absenteeism and $26 billion in treatment costs.
Work-related stress causes 120,000 deaths and results in $190 billion in healthcare costs yearly.
The question then: stress, is it a weakness or an opportunity to learn, to understand, and help yourself and others find their best life?
The Stress SEAT: to overcome stress, you have to understand it.
Karl Albrecht wrote the seminal text on workplace stress; stress and the manager (1979). His observations are as relevant today as they were then, with his primary lesson for managers being that if you want to overcome stress, you have to understand it.
Albrecht talks of four primary human stressors that we have called, the Stress SEAT: Situation, Encounter, Anticipation, Time.
Situation Stress is a product of the environment; it's level of novelty, your past experiences and your tolerance of uncertainty (e.g. implementing a change management plan). Change can increase a sense of threat, creating anxiety and fear, which triggers your freeze, fight or flight response that can lead to irrational behaviour, where an emotional overload that sees your Amygdala hijacks your Pre Frontal Cortex.
Stress tip: improve your awareness of your responses to uncertainty, and the triggers that heighten feelings of anxiety, then shortcircuit the reaction by breaking the problem into small chunks and linking to experiences where you have successfully solved problems or made right decisions.
Encounter Stress: relates to fear or anxiety of an interaction with an individual or group (e.g. working with a new joint-venture team). There are links here to social anxiety, where past experiences fuel fear and anxiety. Confounding factors such as a lack of self-confidence, empathy, social awareness, and introversion characteristics can influence encounter stress.
Stress tip: as with situational stress, you need to enhance your awareness of the triggers for your stress response. You might find it useful to think of someone who you see as thriving in social settings: what do they say, what do they hear, what behaviours do they display, and what small experiment could you take away and try yourself?
Anticipation Stress: how much do you worry about the future? People who experience anticipatory stress worry both about the future in general and specific events, such as a performance review meeting.
Stress tip: take the time to prepare. Rehearse the meeting in your mind and use tools such as our Insights Radar to explore your blue and purple zones; what you know and what lies hidden.
Time Stress: is probably the most common type of workplace stress. People feel as though there isn't enough time to achieve tasks, or they feel stuck in time, with no time for the things that bring them a feeling of a Good Life.
Stress tip: learn to release pressure on your time using tools such as the powerful Eisenhower Matrix - trust us, if you haven't tried this before it can have a significant impact on your time management.
Listen to what is your body trying to tell you
How tuned in are you to your body's SOS signals? Stress can impact your mental and physical wellbeing, as well as those around you. The Mayo Clinic has 18 common warning signals that you should be tuning into today.
Stress unaddressed: the tale of Senator Key Pittman.
Senator Key Pittman (Democrat) became a United States Senator in 1913. In 1916, age 44, he became a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. By 1933 he had gained the position of President pro tempore of the United States Senate.
"One of the three best strategists among Democratic congressmen; a level headed individual who manages to be politically astute without sacrificing his integrity...one who never did a bad job of anything...a good legislator and a skilled artisan in the political technique of legislation and statesman." (When Illness Strikes the Leader: The Dilemma of the Captive King, p. 75)
When Roosevelt won the Democratic Presidency in 1933, Pittman expected to be in charge of his foreign policy. However, there was an obstacle; Pittman had a drinking problem but he had it under control. However, a lethal combination of situation, encounter, anticipation and time stress would push Pittman to drink more. The more he drank, the more people distanced themselves from him. The more isolated he became, the more he drank. It was a downward spiral that stunted a promising political career.
Two things pushed him to lose control over his drinking habit. First, his relationship with his wife, who was cold, sexually promiscuous and masochistic. As their relationship deteriorated, the pressure at work increased: for example, in his foreign policy role, he was instrumental in creating the alignment of the United States with what would become its World War II allies. His drinking came to the notice of Roosevelt's inner circle, and he found himself out in the cold after he failed to gain the foreign policy position he coveted. His stress increased.
Things went from bad to worse for Pittman. Feeling slighted by Roosevelt, he made a catastrophic proclamation during tense diplomatic negotiations with the Axis: stating that the people of the US did not like the government of Japan or Germany. His influence and drinking entered a terminal decline, though he still believed he could one day be Vice President of the United States.
Those close to Pittman failed him. He needed people to be curious, to have empathy, to understand the impact of stress, and help him learn about what was happening to him. He died of a heart attack in 1940 aged 68, apparently the consequence of a drinking binge.
Are you curious enough to understand stress, for yourself and others because it could be the difference between life and death?
Insights: be aware of the opportuities created by your limitations
As a leader or manager, you need to be aware of the skills you need to motivate and develop a high-performing team.
To help, we have designed an Insight Space to help discover and develop opportunities in your skillset.
We also show you how to use awareness and understanding of stress to improve engagement, productivity, engagement, wellbeing and creativity as part of our Good Workshops programme. Get in touch if you would like to know more.