Have you heard the term ‘a little stress is good for you’?
I’d be surprised if you hadn’t, it’s used often enough to justify unreasonable and excessive demands in many organisations. I once knew of a senior manager who wanted to test the ‘resilience’ of a person in a developmental role, by creating stressful situations for them, just to see if they could ‘cope’, whatever that meant?
Many would consider of course that resilience though is a key attribute and desirable quality in an employee, especially one working in high-risk situations, and even more especially if they are potential leaders. However, I want to challenge you to think about stress differently.
I want you to open your mind, and consider that actually, no amount of stress is good for you, and that the idea of ‘eustress’ (moderate or normal psychological stress, interpreted as being beneficial) is in fact a mistaken trope. The idea is not only logically problematic, but is often used to justify stressful and distressing workloads.
Bordering on being traumatic
To begin with, I’d like to share something by Dr Frank A Gerbode, who describes stress as ‘a condition of being confronted with something that one feels one may be incapable of handling’ and that ‘it borders on being traumatic’.
The key word in Gerbode’s definition is ‘condition’ – it is an actual state of being, that ‘borders on being traumatic’. What Dr Gerbode is saying here is that too much stress is likely to lead to trauma. Not only is this possible, our clientel regularly demonstrate its reality, especially within first responder organisations.
So here’s the question – how can a condition that borders on being traumatic be in any way ‘good for you’?
Fact is, it simply isn’t.
But let’s look a little deeper, and see if we can’t get to the bottom of this idea, and explain what’s really going on.
Too much pressure!
Ok, here we go.
When people tend to say that a little stress is good for you, they are indeed mistaken, but they’re really trying to say is that a little pressure is good for you, and this is a different concept entirely.
Pressure is ‘real or perceived demands imposed upon a person or group by another individual or group’.
I’m guessing that at this point you may be thinking about the pressure we bring upon ourselves? it’s an interesting idea, but upon deeper inspection, even the pressures we think we’re placing ourselves actually have their roots in pressures that were originally brought to bear by other people – it can be a fun thought-experiment to contemplate this. Ask yourself, where did it really come from?
So actually, work related stress is an outcome of too much pressure, and a negative outcome at that. Lets have a look at three key domains (Courtesy of MIND) that are negatively affected by stress.
The way stress makes you feel
- Irritable, angry, impatient or wound up
- Over-burdened or overwhelmed
- Anxious, nervous or afraid
- Like your thoughts are racing and you can’t switch off
- Unable to enjoy yourself
- Uninterested in life
- Like you’ve lost your sense of humour
- A sense of dread
- Worried or tense
- Neglected or lonely
- Existing mental health problems getting worse
Physical signs of stress
- Difficulty breathing
- Panic attacks
- Blurred eyesight or sore eyes
- Sleep problems
- Muscle aches and headaches
- Chest pains and high blood pressure
- Indigestion or heartburn
- Constipation or diarrhoea
- Feeling sick, dizzy or fainting
- Sudden weight gain or weight loss
- Developing rashes or itchy skin
- Changes to your period or menstrual cycle
- Existing physical health problems getting worse
Behavioural outcomes of stress
- Finding it hard to make decisions
- Inability to concentrate
- Inability to remember things, or make your memory feel slower than usual
- Constant worry or have feelings of dread
- Snapping at people
- Biting your nails
- Picking at or itching your skin
- Grinding your teeth or clenching your jaw
- Experiencing sexual problems, such as losing interest in sex or being unable to enjoy sex
- Eating too much or too little
- Smoking, using recreational drugs or drink alcohol more than you usually would
- Restlessness, like you can’t sit still
- Crying or feel tearful
- Spending or shopping too much
- Not exercising as much as you usually would, or exercising too much
- Withdrawing from people around you
Unfortunately, pressure tends to be accompanied by some degree of coercion (the act of persuading or forcing people to act in accordance with the intentions of other people or groups, in order to avoid some kind of penalty).
When it comes to work, we all quite happily agree to some level of coercion don’t we? after all, the first coercion is to actually turn up, with the associated penalty in this example a fairly obvious one – getting fired! There are also a multitude of other coercions that we actively agree to at work within the boundaries of our contract.
But what about the coercions that we don’t agree to? the ones that are heaped upon us with the expectation that we’ll just comply? These cause stress. We don’t want the penalty for non-compliance, and if the pressures invalidate your values, stress is heightened a great deal.
Sometimes, leaders have to deliver pressure to their teams, it’s a fact of life. Pressure gets the job done, especially in high-risk environments. However, leaders need to be aware of the potential impact of pressures they create, in every decision they make. Interestingly, this seems to come naturally to leaders with a high emotional quotient. No more pressure should be brought to bear than is required to get the job done safely, effectively, efficiently, and certainly not to a degree where it causes an employee any degree of unwarranted stress. This will help minimise levels of stress within the workforce.
Naturally, using Health & Safety Executive guidelines on stress in the workplace (if followed!) can help leaders to navigate this, and to be fair, leaders should be doing this already!
Many Eudemonics clients come to us suffering from a great deal of stress due to excessive workloads in the face of Strategic, structural, systemic, & procedural changes, which tend to lie beyond the control of most outside the C-suite. Shrinking budgets, driving efficiency, poor staff retention, and performance issues seem to be the chief causes of much change, much pressure, and of course much stress, none of which is actually good for them.
Until next time, take care, notice the stress you’re feeling, equate that to the pressure you’re under, and seek help if you need to.