In the first half of this article, I argued that stress is a serious issue, and that systemic changes are needed to tackle what the World Health Organization calls “the health epidemic of the 21st century.” To understand exactly what changes are needed, in this second half we look at two significant environmental causes of stress.
First of all, let’s talk about connection. Social engagement - making eye contact, listening and being listened to in an attentive manner, and feeling understood - calms us and lessens our stress reactions. In an experiment where women were receiving an MRI brain scan, they were told that when a red light came on, they might receive a small electric shock on their feet – or they might not. This information lit up the stress centres of their brain. But when their partner was there holding their hand, the patients registered less stress. When they were shocked, they experienced less pain. A secure connection to another person can literally act as a buffer against shock, stress and pain.
Many workplaces ignore the importance of building personal connections. Those times spent ‘at the water cooler’ or getting a cup of coffee together are too often perceived as wasting time when we should be working. But building strong personal connections is vital for reducing stress. When we know there are people at work who care about how we feel, our stress levels decrease. Spending time with people we like isn’t just about having a good time – it decreases our stress, primes our brain for high performance, and capitalises on the motivation and energy that social support provides.
I highly recommend Simon Sinek’s book, Leaders Eat Last, especially for his discussion of the chemical forces at play within our body. Chapter 7 - ‘The Big C’ - is all about cortisol, the stress hormone. Sinek explains that stress has an important evolutionary purpose: it is our body's way of responding to threats. When we feel threatened, our nervous system releases cortisol, which stimulates a heightened sense of alertness, the first level of our ‘fight-or-flight’ response.
However, in environments where people keep to themselves, engaging only when necessary, doing their work then leaving, there is constant low-grade anxiety because, as social animals, we feel stress when we’re unsupported. If the bonds of trust between people are weak, if we do not feel safe in a group, cortisol starts seeping into our veins. The stress we experience from this gut feeling distracts and limits our ability to get things done.
Building strong, personal connections with others is crucial in our working lives. Each positive interaction we experience helps to return our cardiovascular system to resting level. Over the long haul, these positive interactions help protect employees from the negative effects of job strain. Each connection lowers cortisol, which helps employees recover faster from stress and makes them better prepared to handle it in the future.
What this means is that organisations need to make systemic changes that allow and encourage people to develop strong personal connections in the workplace. People need to have opportunities to get to know each other on a personal and meaningful level, to build trust and to share. Trust can never be the result of a single team-building day. Organisations need to build personal time into the working week (in a way that is neither forced or weird). To understand more about how this might work, let’s turn to the second systemic change.
When we think about job-related stress, we often think of CEOs as having the most stressful roles in organisations because of all the responsibility that rests on their shoulders. However, organisational leaders have been found to have overall lower stress levels than those who work for them. It is not the demands of the job but the degree of control workers feel they have that causes the most stress. So let’s talk about control. Those who feel they have more control, who feel more empowered to make decisions instead of waiting for approval, suffer less stress. Those only doing as they are told suffer the most. It’s pretty straightforward: less control = more stress. Jobs that give workers less control have been linked to earlier death rates and higher rates of mental illness.
Organisations struggle with sharing control. ‘Command-and-control’ is still sadly the dominant form of leadership. The predominant, hierarchical structure of companies sees managers as making the decisions and workers as executing them. If organisations want to get serious about tackling the health epidemic of the 21st century, then what’s needed is a fundamental restructure that gives everyone a higher degree of control over their sphere of operation.
Take flexitime as a mild and reasonably well-accepted example. This practice allows people to alter their start and finish times as they see fit. If people are given more freedom over when and how they work, this will not only have a positive effect on their stress levels, it will also enable them to respond to opportunities to build personal connections with the people they work with.
I worry about workplaces which offer mindfulness meditation or yoga, as I suspect many of them create a half-hour oasis of calm for employees before requiring them to step back into a toxic environment. What is needed is to change the environment, not just give people a brief time-out from it. Mindfulness can help with stress, but it is not the answer because it does not tackle the causes of stress. Much stress is caused by environmental factors like having no control and feeling unsupported by the people around us. If we want to get serious about tackling stress, we have to get serious about tackling these causes.
Mortal Fools is running a ‘Mastering Stress’ workshop with Northern Stage in Newcastle on Wednesday 9 November. To find out more, including how to book your place, click here.
Dr Andrew Crosbie