Stress, Health, and Workplace Culture
75 to 90% of all family doctor visits result from stress-related illnesses. Paul Rosch, MD, President of the American Institute of Stress
A few evenings ago I was involved in a fascinating discussion with some very insightful colleagues about the role of stress in the lives of executives and other high-performing professionals. Ultimately, we came to the conclusion that stress is “the new smoking.” When we compared the role smoking played in our society 20 or 30 years ago to the role it plays today, we found that smoking was so prevalent in the past, before the long-term harmful effects were clearly understood was that it was considered the norm, heavily supported and reinforced by popular culture, the media, in social settings and even in most workplaces. It was perceived as positive and associated with being sophisticated, powerful, rugged, glamorous and even “sexy”.
Today, due to increasing awareness of the devastating health effects, smokers are looked down on, ostracized and excluded from most public places, especially the workplace. Social norms no longer support or encourage this behavior and organizations are aware of their responsibility and guilt when they put employees at risk. We compared this to the stressful work style that is the norm in companies and other large organizations today.
High-performing leaders and high-level professionals are rewarded, applauded, and admired for their willingness to work very long hours, react immediately, and compete with peers, often with severe personal consequences. And our advances in technology such as faxes, cell phones, Blackberries and I-Phones have exacerbated this trend by making being available to work 24/7 an expectation rather than an exception.
Some of the consequences are quite immediate, such as B. Misjudgments, errors or omissions due to information overload or lack of vigilance due to insufficient recovery. In these circles, needing little sleep is indeed a badge of honor, something that is expected and aspired to, and
Anyone who admits that they need more than five hours of sleep a day is considered a “lazybones” or “wimp”. Other consequences are longer-term, such as deteriorating relationships with employees
due to stress-related impatience and irritability, or, more importantly, loss of relationships with children or a spouse due to neglect and unresponsiveness to their needs.
Consider this quote from Bryan Dyson, CEO of Coca Cola Enterprises from 1959 to 1994 (and obviously way ahead of his time):
“Think of life as a game of juggling five balls in the air. You name them – work, family, health, friends and spirit – and you keep all of that in the air. You will soon
understand that work is a rubber ball. If you drop it, it will bounce back. But the other four spheres – family, health, friends and spirit – are made of glass. Dropping one of these will irrevocably wear them down, mark them, nick them, damage them, or even smash them. They will never be the same again. You need to understand that and strive for balance in your life.”
Recently, scientific evidence has been accumulating to suggest that this level of severe and unrelenting stress affects our bodies long before we are aware of the damage it is causing in serious and even fatal ways. Consider these:
are you paying attention yet Stress affects people emotionally, mentally and physically. Although we often look outside of ourselves for sources of stress, stress is really caused by our reactions to the so-called “stressors” in our environment. At the same time, the culture in today’s society, and especially in most corporate workplaces, makes living under high pressure, long hours, always “on” life seem “heroic”, admired and expected if one wants to succeed.
So, my group of colleagues, having paid attention to all these trends, posited, and probably rightly so, that twenty years from now we will see the true long-term effects of chronic stress. Just as we see today the cumulative effects of decades of damage on our bodies
When we smoke, we can expect the ravages of decades of damage from chronic stress.
They predicted that our workplace and cultural norms would change based on this, just as they did
how we view smoking, but also, unfortunately, how most people who have smoked most of their adult lives experience it too late to prevent chronic disease and sometimes premature death.
What can you do to change this path for yourself and other people who work for you or your organization? There are dozens of steps you can take now. Some include:
- get formed Learn more about the connection between health, vitality and stress. Read the research; Find out what is known and what is being discovered.
Learn new skills. Start practicing stress management techniques and tools in your own life
Set goals and schedules for targeted measures to reduce stress and improve balance. Apply your newfound knowledge of stress to develop personal change (and if you are in control of it), the organizational culture change needed to support a less stressful norm.
Get support. Develop internal organizational support, create a “wellness team,” work with a spouse, family member, or close friend or colleague to assist you in your efforts. Or alternatively, consider working with a coach to keep you focused and accountable.
And in the words of Charles (Chip) Lutz, “Be a willow.” Learn to be more like a willow that stays firmly attached to its trunk but can sway with the breeze. Create an atmosphere of flexibility. Find out where you can move and try to expand this. As a parent of a teenager, one of my favorite mantras is “choose your battles.” Find out how you can stay true to the core values and principles and still be more flexible. And think about how you can make the workplace more fun, then do it! Remember that as a leader you are “the amplified voice” and what you articulate and especially what you model has a greater impact on others than you might imagine.
Thanks to Lisa Pasbjerg