Chronic stress is expensive, physiologically, psychologically, and economically. It’s big money: over US$300 billion annually in the US, and over 1% of GDP in the UK. Chronic stress in the workplace leads to absenteeism, attrition, loss of morale, and importantly, a loss of creativity and strategic thinking. It’s the destroyer of a motivated, engaged, high-performing workforce.
As a leader, you have a significant impact on the health and well-being of the people in your organization—most likely more so than their own doctor does.
At worst, chronic workplace stress is a killer, and has resulted in suicides. It also increases your likelihood of contracting diseases that can significantly shorten your lifespan, including diabetes and heart disease. At best, chronic stress is the killer of joy and leaves you feeling exhausted and drained with a greater vulnerability to infectious diseases. But not all stress is a bad thing. We all need some stress. We can even enjoy it!
Under the right amount of stress, performance, productivity, and well-being are optimised
Under the right amount of stress, performance, productivity, and well-being are optimised. It drives us to achieve great things. Yet stress attracts bad press. In organizations, it often gets swept under the carpet, or is thought of as a disorder: something that must be either fixed, or ignored. Those who ‘suffer’ from stress are all too often labelled as weak, or inefficient. Those who can withstand constant pressure and significant workload receive a badge of honour. Those who can’t stand the heat are, of course, free to get out of the kitchen. But the decision to leave is not an easy one. Physiological and psychological distress may well have occurred before the decision point. So, is there a more compassionate way to think about stress? Why do people respond to stress in different ways? What can leaders do to optimise the stress of their teams and organizations?
The Physiology of Stress
To answer these questions, firstly let’s look at what stress does to the body. Physiologically, the stress response is an evolutionary adaptation. It exists to keep you alive. It’s not a disorder. Switch it on too often, or for too long, though, and it creates problems. Any perceived danger or risk activates the physiological stress response. Your brain is always on the lookout for potential threats. When it detects a threat, it signals a chain of physiological changes. In a fraction of a second, your sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) is activated. Your endocrine system is involved too (your hormones). Your brain is doing its best to look after you.
Every system in your body is affected by the stress response. Your heart rate and blood pressure increase. Glucose is moved through cells and into your bloodstream. Arteries dilate so that blood can deliver energy to tissues faster. Your breathing increases to transport oxygen and nutrients more quickly. Your body is effectively running a triage system, shutting down what’s unimportant and switching on what’s necessary to keep you alive. The most important thing in the stress response is that you might have to run or fight for your life. Your muscles are going to need energy, fast, and you will need to be hypervigilant. Anything else is unimportant. Digestion and tissue repair slow down. The immune system is inhibited, as is the reproductive system. Your body is fully primed for action. But what if no physical action is needed?
Imagine the scene: it’s 10pm and after a long and intense day of work, you’ve just shut down your laptop. You’re reclining on the sofa, accompanied by Netflix and a large glass of something. A notification pops in on your phone. Hesitantly, you glance down at it. It’s an email from your boss, regarding a presentation you prepared and felt proud of. You only see the first few words; you haven’t yet opened the email, but it’s clear your boss is displeased. Before you’ve consciously read and understood the words, your brain has leapt into action. Your body has been jumped into a physiological life or death response when no acute physical crisis has occurred, and you haven’t even left the sofa. Surely not? Unfortunately, it’s true. Even thinking about something which feels stressful can trigger the stress response. Sometimes, simply the anticipation of a stressful event is enough to turn on a real physiological stress response (whether or not the event actually occurs).
The Danger of the False Alarm
You’re still sitting on the sofa, phone in hand, email unopened, a flood of thoughts in your head. Should you open the email? If you open it, will you feel compelled to work half the night? Is your boss just being his usual hypercritical self? As you think, the stress response continues. The uncertainty of not knowing exactly what your boss thinks provides just the ammunition that it needs. You decide to open the email. It wasn’t as bad as you thought. Your body starts to calm. But the false alarm, the lack of a real physical threat, is damaging for your body, because it is energy demanding.
The false alarm, the lack of a real physical threat, is damaging for your body, because it is energy demanding
The triage system that was deployed must now be put back to normal so that your body can re-gain what is known as allostatic balance. If you don’t actually need to run (or fight) when the stress response is turned on, nutrients that were released into your bloodstream must now be re-absorbed. If you’re regularly stressed, your body will waste energy moving nutrients in and out of storage and you’ll get tired more easily. Over time, this process wreaks havoc on your body.
Individuality and Stress
There is huge variability in whether the stress response is activated or not and the degree to which it affects you. Robert Sapolsky, a Professor at Stanford University, eloquently explains that the complexity arises not only from your neurochemistry, your hormones, and sensory cues in your environment, but also from your genes, your prenatal environment, your early childhood experience, and the nature of your relationships, as well as your collective life experience and the influences of the cultures in which you have lived. All of these are inextricably interlinked. Even in the womb you are susceptible to stress; chronic stress levels in a pregnant mother can cause epigenetic changes in her baby. The child will grow up being more prone to interpret a neutral situation as a threatening one. This is a permanent and lifelong change. Prenatal chronic stress may also permanently alter the physiology of the baby, increasing the likelihood of mental health issues, cardiovascular and metabolic disorders in adulthood. An individual experiencing stress is not weak, but simply trying to adapt to his or her circumstances.
Back to the sofa and your stress response. Context is critical. Perhaps you have a tough relationship with your boss. You feel he is overcritical and too much of a micromanager. Even thinking about your boss in this context is sufficient to trigger the stress response. But let’s assume instead that you have a great relationship with your boss. He is supportive and allows you autonomy. There is a high level of trust in your relationship. Will the stress response still be activated? Possibly…but more likely not. It depends on all those inextricably linked factors. But if you are exhausted, and you haven’t been looking after yourself very well, the likelihood of the stress response being activated increases.
There’s a narrow range as to what constitutes the optimal amount of stress. More importantly, there’s incredible individual variation as to what counts as optimal. One person’s white-knuckle experience may be another’s walk in the park. There can be different levels of physiological benefit or harm in people who have the same levels of stress hormones. Individual differences create different physiological responses and behaviour, even if the hormone levels are exactly the same. One person’s perception of how loudly (and aggressively) the person is talking may be totally different to another’s.
The Difference Between Optimal Stress and Chronic Stress
Acute stress is useful. It can save your life, and it can help you if you need to deliver a world-class presentation. It’s usually short-term and passes quickly. The optimal amount of stress, or stimulation, allows you to be alert, focused and driven. Your senses become sharper, and certain aspects of cognition improve. Optimal levels of stress do great things for learning and memory. The bad news: chronic, persistent and extreme stress produce changes in the brain that resemble depression. And chronic stress makes you more vulnerable to both depression and addiction. It can disrupt how you learn and remember and may even damage your neurons. It impairs your judgement, makes you more impulsive and may make you less empathic. It disrupts your executive functioning, your ability to think strategically and plan for the long-term. Chronic stress also speeds up the process of ageing in your brain. Chronic stress is a recipe for disaster for both the individual and the organization.
The Organizational Perspective and the Complexity of the Problem
Stress is often viewed in organizations as ‘the inability of people to cope’. The International Labour Organization defines workplace stress as occurring when ‘the demands of the job do not match or exceed the capabilities, resources or needs of the worker; or when the knowledge or abilities of an individual worker or group to cope are not matched with the expectations of the organizational culture of an enterprise.’ However, as we’ve seen, a person’s response to a stressor is affected by many factors.
The natural response, in a culture where stress is considered the inability to cope, is to work harder and longer. The logic is that this will enable better coping and increased productivity. It’s often at the very point that we are becoming chronically stressed, that we try to work our bodies even harder. It becomes tempting to abandon good habits like a good night’s sleep and healthy eating. In doing so we succumb to a downward spiral.
There is a compelling case for a different and more compassionate view of stress. Biologically, stress is a person’s adaptive response to changing conditions, or circumstances in the environment that indicate a perceived threat. The adaptative response is necessary for survival. A certain amount of stress is good, leading to stimulation and drive. Too much, and/or continual stress, negatively affects performance and well-being. So, stress is not a disorder—simply an adaptive response. Both the organization, the leader and the individual have a responsibility.
For the organization, what is it about the culture that is creating a perceived threat? For the leader, what I am saying, feeling, and doing that could be causing perceived threat? For the individual, what does my body need, in order that I can restore equilibrium? And why do I see the situation the way I do?
Why The Survival of the Fittest Culture Needs a Re-Think
In March 2021, a small group of analyst graduates at Goldman Sachs made a request to their seniors to work only 80 hours a week as opposed to over 100. Their presentation found its way into the press and social media. In it, one graduate noted: “Being unemployed is less frightening to me than what my body might succumb to if I keep up this lifestyle.” Goldman Sachs responded by saying it was taking the presentation seriously and would hire more analysts and protect Saturdays as being a day of no work. It recently raised salaries for its junior bankers although the sentiment by many was that the juniors should stop complaining and accept that working into the early hours is the norm in the industry. Unfortunately, financial compensation doesn’t address the mental and physical health challenges that the analysts are facing. It will simply make them feel guilty about raising any future concerns regarding mental health.
There is a compelling case for a different and more compassionate view of stress
Along with the money, Goldman Sachs also added additional resources to assist with analyst workload. However, if the culture is part of the problem, there remains a significant challenge. The neurological triggers that make people feel stressed out probably haven’t been addressed. In many organizations, these include being undermined, feeling controlled, being micromanaged, and being made to feel small.
The high workload, long-hours, high stress environment is not unique to the banking industry. In many organizations, ‘Survival of the Fittest’ culture rules, and you have a choice as to whether you want to be part of it. Interestingly, it wasn’t Darwin, but Herbert Spencer who originally coined the phrase and it has been widely misinterpreted with the implication that we must all be alpha males in order to stand a chance of success. What Darwin really meant by ‘Survival of the Fittest’ is that those species best adapted to their immediate local environment will have the best reproductive success (fitness). A ‘Survival of the Fittest’ culture undervalues the importance of collaboration and compassion. Darwin wrote in The Descent of Man: ‘those communities, which included the greatest number of the most sympathetic members, would flourish best, and rear the greatest number of offspring.’ In many organizations, the ‘always available for work mentality’ alongside relentless competition has created an all-pervading sense of continued crisis, which is confusing for our bodies, which need significant periods of rest and relaxation (not just Saturdays).
The Responsibility of the Leader
Leaders are very often unaware of the huge impact that their behaviours have on others. If you’re stressed, your people will feel it. Their brains will pick on the signals that you send out (even without realising) which will heighten their own threat responses. Some leaders take out their stress on others, both intentionally and unintentionally. If you’re a leader who does this it might lower your own physiological risks of suffering from chronic stress but it will increase the risks for the people around you.
There are some specifics in organizations that significantly impact stress. They include rank and status, autonomy and control, uncertainty, isolation, relationships and social support. Hierarchy matters, when it comes to stress. The higher up the hierarchy, the less likely you are to suffer from chronic stress. Far more important than the hierarchy itself is the contextual meaning of the hierarchy. If you feel like you’re higher ranking, it counts (even if that hierarchy is in an out-of-work context). Simply being a junior employee is not going to stress someone out. But being made to feel like the lowest of the low and undervalued becomes a stressful experience. Leaders can do small things to respect people’s status; simply helping someone recognise their qualities, regardless of their position is helpful. Giving someone exposure is also helpful. Conversely, actions which threaten someone’s status at work, such as public shaming, intimidating or undermining, can significantly increase stress.
It is the compassionate and relationship driven organization that generates the optimal stress and performance levels
When people feel more autonomous, they feel like they have choices, and feel more in control. Having a perception of control lowers the impact of a stressor. If you’re a mid-level leader, control can also be a challenge, because very often you’re faced with high-work demands but feel as if you have little autonomy. This is the stressful world of significant responsibility without control. Executive leaders take note, and mid-level leaders, please educate your executive team. Uncertainty is also important in determining how stressed people feel. Managing uncertainty is a challenge for any leader, especially in unpredictable times, but by being predictable yourself, and giving your team autonomy, you can help. If you have to deliver bad news, don’t wait. The uncertainty of whether there will be bad news or not can be worse than the bad news itself.
Relationship is critical. The feeling of isolation, of being excluded or without social support can trigger the stress response. This is especially important in the context of working remotely. As a leader, make someone feel like they belong, connect with them and trust them. Any additional social support they can obtain, both inside and outside the organization is of benefit. Talking about stress with your team is helpful, as is being aware of their individual stress triggers.
Put Your Own Life-Jacket on First Before Helping Others
Of vital importance for you as a leader is how you manage your own stress, and how you support others. Knowing yourself is critical. What triggers your stress response? How do you react? Are you engaging in activities in an attempt to manage your stress that simply serve as a crutch? Your health and well-being depend on adequate sleep, play, exercise, relaxation and reflection as well as a healthy diet. Many of us may do well in a couple of these areas but not in all of them. For play, what uplifts and energises you? What relationships nourish you? Are you taking too much for granted in your close family relationships? Having a support network, chatting regularly with good friends, and laughing together is a good way to relieve stress as are hobbies, creative pursuits or playing with your children.
Studies show that meditation, mindfulness and yoga are also helpful when done regularly, with specific physiological effects in reducing stress hormones and sympathetic nervous system activity. Regularity is key. Ten minutes of meditation every day is more useful than an hour of meditation once a week. A good night’s sleep every night and waking up at roughly the same time every day is much more beneficial than five hours of sleep every weeknight and using the weekend to catch up. A small amount of exercise a day is more beneficial than a two-hour power workout at the weekend. It might feel like you don’t have enough time, but setting the foundation of sleep, play, exercise, relaxation and diet will not only reduce your stress and improve your well-being, it will also improve your productivity.
Of vital importance for you as a leader is how you manage your own stress
Walking the Knife Edge
Finding the optimal level of stress, stimulation, is a complex and challenging task for an individual and more so for a leader who is trying to find the optimum in his or her team. Some stress is important, too much stress is a problem. Not enough autonomy, control and certainty can be stressful, but too much of them is not helpful. In the face of all these complexities, there is a need for compassion, and for reflection. As Darwin might have said, it is the compassionate and relationship driven organization that generates the optimal stress and performance levels. In a compassionate organization, people feel that they belong, they matter, they are trusted, and they are part of something with a bigger purpose. In this kind of environment, they fly, and are hugely driven to deliver as a result.
The scientific references in this article are drawn from a variety of sources and include work by the following authors: Robert Sapolsky, Gregory Fricchione, Joseph Herbert, Hans Selye, Michael Marmot and Elizabeth Blackburn, and Bruce McEwan.