Stress, Just As We Know It
Imagine this… You are planning a journey. How do you feel? Prepared, with a map, plan of your route and the resources you need to keep you going? Or are you travelling aimlessly, unsure of which path to choose, slogging on, possibly in the wrong direction, feeling exhausted?
Traditionally our culture is one where we feel the need to work long hours to prove ourselves and to achieve ever-increasing goals. But a study from the TUC* suggests that, despite the UK working longer hours that many other countries, we continue to lag behind when it comes to productivity; in 2017 Britain was ranked 14th in terms of output per worker per hour. It doesn’t make economic sense and in terms of wellbeing, we know we benefit from spending more time with family and friends and engaging with interests we (should) have outside of work. Working long hours and experiencing stress is nothing to be proud of.
Stress is a red flag to show us that our primitive survival brain is in charge. Ask yourself this… are you able to identify your own cognitive (e.g black and white thinking), physical (e.g. increased heart rate), emotional (e.g. feeling tearful) and behavioural (e.g. being snappy) symptoms of stress? Do you know which of these are your personal early warning signs? It is worth taking time to notice them so that you can take action when before it becomes too great. Ignoring them is like holding up a glass of water. It doesn’t feel very heavy to begin with but after an hour, a day, a week… you get the idea.
A helpful definition by Palmer & Cooper (2000) that many of us relate to is that stress arises when demands exceed the individual’s perceived ability/ capacity to cope with these demands. We tend to associate stress with having a workload that is greater than the individual can manage. It is too hard or too much. However, we can also experience under-stress when we have too little to do, resulting in under-stimulation, boredom and lack of motivation. The brain likes to be challenged and stretched. The Human-Response to Stress Curve, created by Nixon (1979) shows that there is a Comfort Zone or what we now more helpfully refer to as the Zone of Optimal Performance where we are stretched.
Our internal system of emotions, cognition, behaviour and physical symptoms tells us if we’re on the up or we’ve gone over the top and are on our way down. This is survival mode. When we’re in the stressed zone, it doesn’t take much to push us into breakdown. Relate this to yourself and your colleagues; many people operate within the stressed zone on a daily basis, resulting in problems with relationships, communication, physical and mental health and ultimately their ability to do their job.
Triggers in Organisations
A number of factors contribute to stress, including:
– noise, over-crowding, over or under heating
– mismatch between demands on staff and their abilities to meet them
– inadequate resources
– long hours
– new technology
– role ambiguity and/or conflict
– relationships with colleagues
Consider which situations trigger your brain’s threat response in your workplace. Remember these triggers are different for each of us depending on factors such as our personal traits and resilience. It is useful to identify your own red flags that stimulate your early stress symptoms and then to create a stress map.
This is a simple visual technique that can be used to gain insight into a range of factors influencing an individual’s stress, breaking down a problem into its constituent parts. This helps us to see their impact on an individual’s stress levels and can inform strategies for addressing issues.
- Take a blank piece of paper and write your name in the middle.
- Around that, write down different components contributing to your stressful situation, both positive aspects that reduce stress and negative aspects that increase it.
- Link these to your name with a line for each.
- Against each line write a number between 0-10 to quantify the level of stress. If one of the aspects reduces stress, mark that as a negative number e.g. -5 as this aspect takes stress away.
- The resulting map identifies variables that have the biggest negative impact on stress and helpful resources (the positive aspects). By breaking down the problem into its constituent parts, it is easier to identify where to take action.
What If We’re Unable To Change What We Do?
Many of us are in jobs where we are unable to change the role to reduce workplace demands, education and the NHS being classic examples. In that case we need to take control by thinking differently about what we do. That ability is associated with resilience and I’ll be writing about this tomorrow so look out for my next post on LinkedIn.
British workers putting in longest hours in the EU, TUC 17 April 2019. www.tuc.org.uk/news/british-workers-putting-longest-hours-eu-tuc-analysis-finds
Palmer, S. (1990) STRESS MAPPING: A VISUAL TECHNIQUE TO AID COUNSELLING OR TRAINING. Emerald.com
Palmer, S. & Cooper, C. (2000) How to Deal with Stress. London: Kogan Page