Stress is a word worn so smooth by a million tongues that it has lost its utility and its usefulness. But despite this it is still extensively written about, profoundly misunderstood and a frequently misapplied concept. Some authors, such as Angela Patmore in her book, The Truth About Stress, claim that the stress industry, far from solving the problem, is perpetuating the issue largely because of the money it can make from stress. Other authors such as James Loehr claim, in his book Stress for Success, that stress is actually good for you. Of course both perspectives are true but incomplete.
Stress is a matter of personal perception
The fact is that stress is really a matter of individual perception. If the challenges placed upon you outstrip your perceived ability to cope then you can start to feel overwhelmed, under too much pressure or stressed. Whether you are actually able to cope or not is irrelevant, it’s your perception that matters. So stress is not directly related to the actual volume of work, but rather is related to the perception of your ability to cope with that volume of work.
Given the individual nature of human perception the fact that so many organisations spend so much time and money trying to identify stressors or provoking factors in the workplace is a testimony to how misunderstood the concept is. We believe it is much more helpful to think about stress in terms of something more specific like emotions. When people claim they feel stressed, what they are normally experiencing is some type of negative emotion. As I explore in my book, Coherence: The Secret Science of Brilliant Leadership, there are 34,000 distinguishable emotions, which means there are around roughly 17,000 negative emotions. The emotion we feel when we say we are stressed can vary; some feel helpless, others feel angry, a few feel frustrated or irritated, for yet others it may be defeat or despair. The emotion we feel as stress can show up in different ways depending on the person but often the negative emotion is overwhelming, uncontrolled and frequently labile.
If we start to become much more precise in our emotional literacy then we can come up with a more effective strategy for dealing with those negative emotions. When we use a term as vague as ‘stress’ it’s so imprecise as to make its resolution very difficult.
So how do we deal with those negative emotions? The first step is to recognise that we create all of our own emotions within our bodies and the perception of stress is no different. Because most people do not realise that they are the architects of their own internal emotional state they are stuck in the ‘victimhood’ position. They claim that something is being done to them to make them feel a particular negative emotion or stress. That’s simply because they don’t have control of their own physiology and emotional state. Without emotional control, you will always be at risk of being overwhelmed and feeling stressed. To change that, you need to accept the fundamental truth that you created the emotion yourself, no one else “did it to me”. You need to learn to control your response – to become ‘response-able’, that is able to respond rather simply react in a victim-like fashion.
The stress tipping point
That’s not to say, as Loehr points out, that all stress is bad. Some stress is good for us – it’s called ‘eustress’ in the literature. Research over the last 100 years has confirmed that when you put some stress or pressure on a system most systems respond well – at least initially – and this fact has been shown to be true of mice and men.
This is why most people in business perform better when they are given a deadline; a little bit of pressure is useful. However, when you are flat out, just two or three more demands can put you over the top.
The problem is that most people aren’t aware of where their own performance pressure or stress tipping point is. They don’t notice that their performance is suffering until they are some way down that down slope. We need to be very clear on where our tipping point is to ensure that we continue to operate on the ‘healthy’ side of performance without stress.
In fact if we ever want to build increased capacity, which means developing strength, endurance flexibility and resilience then we should be aiming to work at 85% of our maximum with spare capacity to be able to deal with any crisis. Most of us try to work flat out all the time – some foolhardy people even exhort their team to give 110%. It’s nonsense, you can give 100%, but 110% is beyond the tipping point and is actually 90%. Even Olympic athletes only train to 85% of their maximum when developing increased capacity. People who try to work flat out or at 100% or beyond are simply putting themselves in an overwhelming position, which will actually make them feel stressed and impair their performance.
Actions for managers and individuals
In eliminating stress in the workplace the individual and the employer both have a degree of responsibility.
As outlined above, the individual’s role is to become more ‘response-able’. This means being ‘able’ to ‘respond’ in a constructive way. Basically individuals need to take responsibility for their own emotional state, identify their emotions and take steps to move to remain in a more positive emotional state more of the time.
The employer’s responsibility is to create the framework for ‘response-ability’ and support individuals in knowing how to manage the stress. This can involve running programmes to help individuals manage their own pressure levels. Remember, the only person who can change the way they respond to pressure is the individual himself or herself, the employer has the responsibility to bring knowledge, education and learning to the employees. Employees then implement.
A key task for managers is to know where their own tipping point is and where the tipping point of their workforce is. Getting people to the ‘healthy side’ of the performance curve may just be a matter of simplifying, clarifying and prioritising. Sometimes just that process can significantly improve the performance of the system.
Organisations should stop focussing on trying to identify the stressors in the system; it’s a waste of money. The emotional response to stress varies by every person, every day and by every circumstance. ‘Management is not talking to me’ could be a stressor on a Monday, but not on a Friday. What organisations can do is teach their managers to spot the tell tale signs of stress in their employees, encourage conversations about stress and emotional states and provide employees with the skills to eliminate the stress.
For more insights into how to become response-able and reduce the impact stress in your life, check out Dr Watkins book: Coherence – The Secret Science of Brilliant Leadership, visit www.coherence-book.com.