‘Balance is becoming increasingly rare and perceivably impossible to achieve in today’s world. Despite technology making our lives easier, we appear to have far less time.’ – Richard Sutton
The highly energetic biological state of stress is an adaptation that has served us well. It has provided humans with possibilities to flourish through shifting and disruptive times. The intricate stress system with its delicate balance of hormones has protected us for the longest time. Short bouts of stress serve to strengthen and enhance our abilities, and provide us with remarkable openings to develop, invent and transform. Ironically, this same system of resilience and growth now poses a threat to our fullest functioning. How is this the case?
The stress axis works best when sporadically activated. Increasingly we are getting ‘stuck’ in the stress state, with potentially disastrous implications. Constant activation causes systemic exhaustion, promoting both disease and pain, and accelerating ageing. Prolonged stress has been shown to negatively impact our memory, focus, attention, cognitive potential and levels of motivation. It also destabilises our DNA, compromising our genetic integrity. This damage could impact future generations. Continued stress puts a final spoke in a constellation of already undesirable outcomes, and it is this: a compromised ability to deal with change. If you are stuck in your own cocktail of stress hormones, take heed: you’re choosing an injurious path for your physical, mental and future self.
The Whitehall studies, which evaluated over 28000 people over 40 years, showed a primary driver of stress to be the feeling of having no authority over decisions. A lack of control can increase risk of dying prematurely by a staggering 40%. Responsibility and high demands don’t seem to be the cause of stress, but injustice, lack of social support, isolation and effort-reward imbalance certainly do cause it.
Should stress be avoided at all costs? Certainly not, says stress resilience expert Richard Sutton. Stress is an essential part of activating our rich human potential for growth. But we should think more carefully about the choices we make, and how we increase the tools and skills at our disposal to buffer the adverse effects of stress. Armed with more knowledge, leaders and people-enablers in the workplace can start to unpick the impact they have on others.
How can we manage our own stress footprints, and create better conditions for others at work?
- Aim to give more control to those around us. This starts out hard at first, but rewards in multiple ways over the longer term as skills, experience and confidence build.
- Support skills development (partly through experimenting with bullet point number one!)
- Reward positive behaviours, this is more effective than reducing demands.
- Allow for more participation in decision-making, practically. Think about the small ways in which you can start to signal and to do this.
- Be fair, champion justice, call out antisocial behaviour. Facilitate mutual engagement.
- Provide support where it is needed.
Showing compassion and support in and of itself is a worthwhile exercise in stress management. Caring for others and acts of charity elevate levels of oxytocin, which lowers fear responses, promotes calm, connectedness and optimism (as well as lowers blood pressure, protects our nervous and circulatory systems, and is a trigger for growth and repair in the body). Pro-social behaviour dramatically negates the negative impact of stress on health.
Creating buffers against stress is less complicated than trying to shift whole systems. We cannot control everything in our midst. But some relatively small changes can have a positive impact.
For more ideas, read The Stress Code, by Richard Sutton. It provides a deeper dive into the scientific research, as well as a repository of insights and tools that promote human thriving.
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