A revolution in stress

Saturday, 01 March 2014

Piers Thurston photo
Piers Thurston

    Piers Thurston believes directors can help transform organisational stress from a cost to a competitive advantage.

    Almost eight out of 10 people regularly experience physical symptoms caused by stress.
    As industry leaders, it makes sense for boards to tackle this costly issue. And, the first step in doing so is to challenge how organisations, and society, have normalised and accepted stress. We actually expect to feel stressed in certain circumstances – for example, tough market conditions, organisational change or busy times of the year. For some professions, it is almost worn as a merit badge of commitment to success.

    But what effect can stress have in a company?

    Stress causes a variety of health problems, including high blood pressure, stomach ulcers, headaches, fatigue, muscle pain and a weakened immune system. These can increase absenteeism, usage of health insurance and work-related accidents. Stress can also make it difficult to concentrate, relate to others or think creatively. It can lead to feelings of negativity, lack of enthusiasm and apathy.  The consequences are obvious – unmet expectations and deadlines, poor judgement, uncompassionate or anti-social behaviour to co-workers, absenteeism and high staff turnover. A company’s productivity and competitive edge is reliant on its human assets and stress is a major threat to and disabler of those assets.

    At a boardroom level, companies are developing policies to tackle stress. However, these are not getting to the root of the issue and only deal with the problem based on a normalised misunderstanding of the causes of stress. They are tackling stress by:

    • Attempting to reduce the key stressors – for examples, workload, support, relationships, role, control and communication of change.
    • Teaching cognitive coping strategies to manage their stress. These help create different behavourial responses to stress by reframing the stress thoughts or adapting the outside world to mitigate it.

    So what is the real problem? The current wisdom about what causes stress, and therefore how to combat it, is based on an incorrect paradigm of how human psychology actually operates. Most of modern workplace psychology promotes the idea that external events create stress and we either need to reduce those events or learn to cope with them (the old “avoid, alter, accept, adapt” model). Then, based on that “outside-in” paradigm, the solution to stress is also “outside-in”.

    Quite simply, it is wrong. The system that creates human experience does not work that way – external events do not create stress (or any feelings for that matter). It might look like they do, but that is completely inaccurate.

    So what is the real answer? It comes down to a very simple yet profound principle – that in any moment, our experience and feeling state is only ever coming from our thinking. Nowhere else. Once we truly realise (non-intellectually) that nothing in the outside world determines our thoughts or feelings, it has huge life-changing implications, including how we relate to – and therefore deal with – stress. There is no longer a need to avoid stress or alter your situation, as the stress does not really exist. It is like thinking it would be a good idea to give your children better places to hide when they are scared watching the wicked witch on a TV show, rather than explaining the nature of TV.

    One could ask if some things are just inherently stressful. No. Only if you engage in a personal narrative of thoughts that create stressful feelings. All our thoughts are formless, arbitrary and transient. They can appear and disappear in an instant. A thought might come into our minds that has the potential to be stressful, but if we see it as just that – a passing thought  – it just floats by without creating meaning and wreaking havoc with our feelings.

    So, as a director, are you trying to fix your people issues, stress being a major example, from an“outside-in” paradigm? That is, at best, tactical, like trying to fix slow internet access by purchasing faster PCs when the real problem is the servers. There is some merit in these approaches, but they are not the most effective or sustainable way to solve this very costly problem.

    Companies need to think differently.  Once elite sports coaches realised physical conditioning was just as important to performance as the technical and tactical prowess of an athlete, they focused on it. It is the same with psychological wellbeing. We have a natural psychological immune system and the better we understand it, the more psychologically fit we become.

    The incorrect “outside-in” paradigm does not only limit the psychological immune system, it actively gets in the way of it.

    By helping leaders and their employees understand how the human psychological system, and hence stress, actually operates (from an “inside-out” perspective) where external events have no direct effect on a person’s feelings, behaviour or well-being, companies can create a highly effective, creative, resilient workforce who are happy in themselves and their work. The handful of forward-thinking organisations that genuinely understand this true “inside-out” nature of stress and performance, and that educate their leaders in that understanding, report that staff members have become more “discouragement-proof” and highly resilient. Their staff have greater motivation and show more creativity. In short, they have gained a competitive advantage.

    As more forward-thinking companies begin to tackle stress in this much more effective way, there is an opportunity to shift the management of stress from being a cost to a competitive discriminator.

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