Summer in Australia has just passed, with the New Year being celebrated under our blazing sun. How do you usually experience this time of the year? Some people find it relaxing and wonderful, whilst others have the most stressful time of their lives. These are very different reactions to the same season. Change, whilst normal, brings stress. Think of the way a deciduous forest goes through four seasons, losing leaves in autumn and coming back in the spring stronger than ever. Stress can be positive or negative. It can help us grow or cause us to become fatigued and eventually stop like some of those trees. In much the same way, we have a very natural, in-built ability to find resilience toward stress and to bounce back.
So, what is stress exactly? Well, it’s a state of physical, mental and emotional strain resulting from changing, demanding or adverse circumstances. Regardless of whether it is good or bad stress… and no matter what the stimulus or perceived threat is… stress always causes the same cascade of reactions in us. Those reactions affect our ability to respond under threat.
The stress response
As soon as a threat is perceived, and before you have determined whether action is needed, the cascade is kicked off. Sadly for us humans the first port of call is to downregulate our rational brain. Yes, we become a bit stupid. Concurrently, our emotional brain (the amygdala) is upregulated. Now we’re emotional and stupid. Then our heart starts to race as the nervous system (the sympathetic response of our Autonomic Nervous System) kicks in. Airways open, blood runs back to central organs, anti-inflammatory chemicals are released and our immune response is suppressed (which isn’t great news if this goes on for a while). Red blood cell levels increase (ready for impact injury). Now imagine you’re at work… most of this is hardly called for. Maybe the boss raised her voice or a workmate used a trigger word from our childhood… but it’s not time for blunt trauma right?
The next thing that happens is that our memory system switches from narrative (story) to emotional encoding. We grab fragments, isolated images that will haunt us on the way home, as we can’t stop stewing on the meeting and thinking (long after we need it) of the very thing we should have said. We are more vigilant, more impulsive (might say something we regret later on) and our fear response is dampened (we’re likely to pick a fight). Only now does our “limbic system” chose whether we should freeze, flee or fight.
If there was no real threat, then you don’t have to run, hide or hit. You have to calm down. The chemicals take about nine minutes to wind-back and your feelings return to normal. This is, in short, what resilience is: the capacity to undo (or cope with) stress. Not everyone unwinds quickly, and some don’t unwind at all. Stress and resilience researcher Hans Selye observed, “Resilience to the stress response can only last so long before fatigue and then exhaustion sets in.”
The US Navy have a traffic light system to identify the different levels of stress. A quick ability to recover would be “code green”. If you go on reacting to the stressor, being worried, irritable or angry then you’d be “code yellow” and told to talk to a friend or co-worker. If your threat response is persistent with distress, fatigue and grief then you’re “code orange” and off to see an allied health professional (coach, counsellor, chaplain). If the impact of stress keeps getting worse, then a little better, then worse still (days of cycling), then the Navy send you “code red” to a medical professional. This is a simple and useful way to think about resilience and recovery.
What about organisations?
What happens to our resilience when a big event happens, like 9-11 that affects us all? Research from Curtain University by Petra Skeffington indicates that 72% of the population will resist and recover (“code yellow” or “code green”), 18% will have various response curves but basically respond and recover in time (“code orange”) and about 10% will be traumatised (“code red”). Of course the event, population, exposure time and many other things change these percentages. However research shows that the vast majority of people are resilient.
It’s great to know about the stress response for ourselves, and for a population in crisis, but what happens when we look at stress across a whole organisation and especially if there is no big event? Organisational change, like moving the office across town or across the country, can be very stressful. Little things like parking and crowded canteens can chip away at people. Organisational growth, merged departments, new managers or longer hours all create background stress. Almost nobody pays attention to organisational ecology, but it’s a key element in staff health.
Let’s go back to the individual staff member for a minute. Consider that the individual change curve sits over the top of the organisation change. That person gets attracted, gets recruited (and inducted), then retained. They get promoted or overlooked, receives pay rises (or not), goes part time, does overtime, their best friend leaves and eventually so do they. Most People & Culture Departments I have worked with are not thinking in terms of managing the stress response curve of these changes, especially over time.
What’s the cost? What’s the risk?
Stress in organisations is costing us dearly. Some of it we can measure, some of it we can’t. These include: presenteeism, absenteeism, reduced productivity, breaches of security, reduced quality of outputs, increased psychological injury and insurance or WorkCover claims to name a few. That’s a lot of potential cost for not managing stress. As we become more aware of this issue, organisations should begin to put risk mitigation strategies in place. These might include:
- Awareness campaigns - traffic lights like the Navy do.
- Policy and procedure - clarify people’s responsibilities.
- HR planning – orientation is a good start, then planning for change.
- Mental health and well-being programs.
- Relationship health - communications, conflict management etc.
- Team building - this is the most important of all.
What’s the opportunity?
What can we do to make the most of this opportunity? Resilience programs are the flavour of the month right now, and even the military are spending millions on programs like Battle Mind. Firstly, it would be a good idea to define what you mean by resilience. Petra Skeffington’s 2015 literature review found that there was no single, agreed upon definition of resilience yet (I’ve given you two already myself). Secondly, define the outcomes of your resilience program in a measurable and clear way. Although this sounds simple, there will be individuals, companies, HR professionals and psychologists all gunning for different things. Thirdly, because managing stress and building resilience is in its infancy, disregard anyone offering you an off-the-shelf solution!
Under the heading of “building awareness” about stress there are two really interesting studies. The first was of a perception experiment done in Florida ten years ago where they ran one group (of several hundred) rollercoaster-fearing people against another similar sized group who loved rollercoasters. They were medically checked before, straight after and three weeks after a day of riding coasters. The ‘haters’ experienced fear and anxiety, increased blood serum levels of cortisol, norepinephrine and adrenaline (all stress-related) and sickness went up 30%. The ‘lovers’ experienced peace and joy, increased blood serum levels of cytokines, interleukins and interferons and their wellness increased. This is all based on the perception of their task.
If you think that’s a bit unbelievable, the University of Wisconsin-Madison surveyed 29,000 people in 1998 about whether they had low, moderate or high levels of stress and whether they perceived stress to be good for them or bad. In 2006, the University researchers looked up the actuarial tables to find out who died. Those who were very stressed and believed stress was bad for them had a 43% increased risk of premature mortality. Those who were very stressed and believed stress was good for them reduced their risk of premature mortality by 4%! The way we perceive stress changes our response. Look for Kelly McGonigal who ran that study, and her new book on the subject.
Stress – the emotional, physical and mental strain put on us by change, demand or adversity – is a very natural occurrence. It can be perceived by us as a good thing, or bad. This creates either eustress (beneficial stress) and health or distress and sickness. A person’s capacity to recover from stress and get back to normal is a measure of resilience. It is important for organisations to scope their own ecology, the way they are changing, growing and affecting their employees. The vast majority will be strong and resilient, even in response to catastrophic events, but some will take time to recover and others will fatigue and collapse. Maybe as a first step take the US Navy traffic light system and find your own way to implement it.
For more information on:
Petra Skeffington: go to www.researchgate.net and search for “Evidence based and theory driven resilience,” conference notes 2015
Kelly McGonigal: go to https://www.ted.com/talks/kelly_mcgonigal_how_to_make_stress_your_friend