A bit of stress keeps us on our toes, but too much can tip us over.
Author and psychologist Daniel Goleman recounts the story of mill workers who face an ever increasing pace on the timber production line as the week goes by.
As the production line ramps up so does the workers’ stress levels, staying high overnight and remaining high until the weekend.
The result was heavy drinking, excessive TV-watching and depression, with family time and social activities curtailed.
When the production line speed was dialled back to a manageable but challenging speed, the effect was reversed.
Perceptions shape experience of stress
Corporate anthropologist Michael Henderson, from Cultures at Work, says from an anthropological point of view stress happens when your preference is interrupted – for better or worse.
Henderson, who has worked with organisations from New Zealand Rugby Union to Spark Digital, says people’s perceptions can shape their experience of stress.
The increasing speed caused stress in the wood-mill workers, but get teenagers to play an online game that becomes harder and harder, throw in a looming deadline, and instead of getting stressed they will become excited.
“Those [mill workers] will have perceived that whole weekly cycle through a particular value set, if you like, and because of that if it’s going well for them it was fine; if it wasn’t then the stress hormones will have been released to cope,” he says.
How to fix workplace stress
Henderson says fixing workplace stress can be done 2 ways.
The first is the outside-in approach where workflows are redesigned, layouts changed, shifts re-jigged, or production technologies introduced to boost production within the same working hours.
“That could be a really valid option for that particular organisation,” he says.
The alternative inside-out strategy aims to understand what is going through the mind of employers, even before they’ve begun the working week, he says.
Henderson says organisations are typically very good at the outside-in approach, suggesting they actually see people as machines without taking into account the perceptions, preferences, attitudes, beliefs, or world-views that people bring to work.
It takes a “forensic” approach to determine which elements are at play, he says, but organisations that ignore the “softer side” do so at their peril.
“There’s enough distractions already with technology and the pace of life we’ve actually got to take a more deliberate look at the human element of the workplace if we truly want to maintain the efficiency and the levels we require to compete effectively in the marketplace today,” says Henderson.
Touch stress vs toxic stress
Galia Barhava-Monteith, executive coach and co-founder of professional women’s networking organisation Professionelle, says in high-pressured environments people often push through to the detriment of their wellbeing.
She says New Zealand compares well to overseas workplaces, but at the same time people do tend to lose perspective when the pressure comes on.
Without perspective work quality drops and can lead to a downward spiral of self-doubt and negativity, she says.
Barhava-Monteith, who is midway through a doctorate on health and wellbeing from a whole person perspective, says there is a big difference between tough stress, which works to build your psychological and work muscle, and toxic stress, which eats at you like acid.
“I think that as leaders one thing that we can do is really treat people who work with us as whole people, as individuals with aspirations and dreams that go beyond achieving the target or the deadline.”
Goleman lists security, trust and respect among workers and their bosses as key signs of on-the-job wellbeing.
He says this environment comes through “empathic concern” for co-workers.
“This genuine caring makes a team member, for instance, happy to put in a little extra time helping out a teammate.
“It makes a boss more likely to see a lapse as a learning opportunity for an employee rather than a black mark.
“And a boss with empathic concern will look for stretch challenges for workers, ones that will help them grow better at skills they need, rather than play-it-safe assignments,” says Goleman.