Fighting and winning the inner stress battle

16 September 2011 -


Stress will destroy you and your staff, if you let it. Tom Peck learns to defeat the enemy from within

Stress, if you ask a scientist, is easy to explain. It is the amount of force per unit area exerted on a given object. There are two ways to increase stress. One, apply more force. Two, decrease the size of the object.

Ergo a common business question: how can we increase productivity and minimise resources at the same time? is, in stress terms, a perfect storm. In a recent survey, 75% said workplace stress was higher than a generation ago. And stress

– real or imagined – manifests itself in physical and costly ways. A study of 3,000 airline employees in 1991, for example, found that those who were unhappy were three times more likely to report back injuries.

In short bursts, stress can be good for you, according to George Everly, associate professor of psychiatry at the prestigious Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore.

But, like all good things, moderation is the key. Chronic stress has profoundly unhealthy consequences. “The well is empty and you’re exhausted,” says Geraldine Gallacher, an executive coach. “If you’re not sleeping, drinking more, beginning to feel angry for no particular reason and losing interest in things that normally excite you, then you’re on the road to burnout.”

But while there is often no obvious cure to stress, there are ways to increase your resilience.

Coping mechanism

Even the most under-pressure manager would have conceded, waking up to news of US Navy Seals having stormed a compound in Pakistan and taken out the world’s most wanted man, that theirs isn’t the most stressful job in the world. Studies on Navy Seals have led Professor Everly to conclude that resilience can be taught.

“First, let people experience success: assign them to a successful group,” he says. “Second, create a surveillance system and safety net, and provide encouragement, mentoring and training. Finally, mitigate the impact of stress by promoting ‘self-efficacy’ – the belief that we are agents of change. One cannot give self-esteem; it must be earned through personal accomplishment in the face of a challenge. We must reframe mistakes as opportunities for learning.”

It is Everly’s second point, primarily, that most managers have difficulty with. Managers feel it is their job to give orders, otherwise workers wouldn’t know what to do. As such it is all too typical for managers to respond to problems and difficulties by tightening control, rather than loosening it. Professional Manager columnist Simon Caulkin advocates turning organisations inside out: “So that orders come from customers, not remote senior managers and their computer schedules. It goes completely against the grain for most managers, whose instinct is always to turn the pressure up and then try to mitigate its worst effects. But that just increases their own stress.”

Stress makers

Perhaps the most intriguing tip for avoiding undue stress is the need to avoid ‘stress sneezers’: those people whose stress is contagious. They enter a room, and instantly stress levels rise. Stress sneezers do not make for good managers.

“You need to set a good example,” says Andrea Broughton, principal research fellow at the Institute for Employment Studies. “Don’t work weekends. Don’t send emails at 3am. Encourage a culture where people can talk about problems.”

For scientists, it is easy to ascertain the maximum amount of stress an object can take. You simply have to wait for it to break. Managers should not attempt this experiment on their teams…

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