Next time you’re feeling the heat and your blood pressure is rising, consider this: Stress might not be so bad for you – it just depends on how you channel it. There’s plenty of research pointing to the downsides of too much stress: heart attacks, headaches, fatigue, depression, you name it. But there is a counter-argument that suggests facing up to stress is a better strategy than burying it. The alternative to fight or flight might be rising to the challenge.
In the latest Harvard Business Review, Alia and Thomas Crum have pulled from research as well as their own experiences running leadership seminars and teaching meditation to come to the conclusion that stress avoidance could almost be worse than stress itself. Although they don’t suggest that prolonged stress won’t take its toll, they argue that “individuals who adopt a ‘stress is enhancing’ mindset in their lives show greater work performance and fewer negative health symptoms than those who adopt a ‘stress is debilitating’ mindset.”
The Crums aren’t the first to point this out by any means. Earlier this year a book by health psychologist Kelly McGonigal titled The Upside of Stress: Why stress is good for you also argued that stress shouldn’t be ignored for the good reason that if we stress about something, it’s because we care, and if we didn’t care about anything then our lives wouldn’t be very meaningful.
“Choosing to see the upside in our most painful experiences is part of how we can change our relationship with stress,” argues McGonigal. Individuals who view stress as debilitating tend to either over or under react to stress according to researchers, whereas those with a more positive approach to stress are more able and willing to listen to advice and feedback, which can help them learn and adapt in the long run.
However, McGonigal and others concede that when a person feels inadequate, imposed upon or isolated in the face of stress – all potential work scenarios – then the effect of stress can be very damaging. So damaging that it has the same impact as inhaling second-hand smoke, according to a new report from the Harvard Business School. Pooling evidence from 228 other stress studies, the researchers found that high job demands increased the odds of having a diagnosed illness by 35 per cent and long work hours made early death 20 per cent more likely.
Understanding the resilience and mindsets that help cope with stress are obviously useful for HR managers. But the standard OHS risk management methodology of “find, assess and fix” is the template for how HR departments need to respond.
Deakin University’s guide for corporate, HR and OHS managers, ComCare: Working Well – An organisational approach to preventing psychological injury, outlines the following steps to take:
- Look: The first step is about paying attention to your staff, noticing any changes in their usual behaviour or relationships. It may be also worthwhile reviewing leave use, both recreation and sick leave as well as over-time or time in lieu.
- Listen: Listen to what staff are saying: are there more complaints or excuses than unusual? Has the level of conflict or sensitivity increased? How much impact is the stress having?
- Think: Think about what you have observed and how that relates to the factors that typically lead to workplace stress. Focus on the obvious causes but do not ignore the full range of possibilities. If you believe the stress is not work related, how is work aggravating the situation?
- Discuss: If appropriate, discuss the issues with your staff individually and/or as a group.
- Act: Put into place a plan to reduce, offset, rebalance, or better manage the stress. This is preferably done in consultation with staff.