Stress: what is it good for?

Whilst it’s occasionally a battle to snaffle the last pot of finest tahini from the shelves of Waitrose, I haven’t yet had to hunt down and kill in order to put food on the family table. I can imagine that going for days without sustenance and then timing the moment to pounce on the prey du jour would be stressful. Life or death situations, yep, they’re stressful. And for good reason: studies show that the fight or flight stress reaction keeps us humans alive.

But what about stress in the modern age? Most of us thankfully don’t have to face risks to our mortality on a daily basis. And yet, many of us are incredibly stressed. I’ve been thinking about how day-to-day stress has become an affliction of many employees, and how it’s affecting those ordinary professionals trying to keep the plates spinning and the wheels on.

Readers will know that I’m a lawyer. A lawyer and a mother. I’ve got a very senior job that I really enjoy along with a family that I really enjoy. But fulfilling the demands of both isn’t easy. In fact, that’s an understatement. It’s stressful. Very, very stressful. And it’s got me wondering how we’ve allowed ourselves to get in to this position.

Working round-the-clock is (at least amongst lawyers) often worn as a badge of honour: ‘yeah, I’m SO busy, I had to pull an all-nighter’. Being on-call 24/7 is pretty-much the norm and it would be almost unthinkable for a senior lawyer to go on holiday and not monitor their emails. Who hasn’t seen the stressed-out holiday parent, laptop on their knees by the pool, or pacing around the restaurant carpark dealing with that urgent email or taking that ‘important’ work call?¬†Each such stressful patch is rationalised as being a one-off or ‘just one of those things’ but seeing as you got through that, the bar and the expectation raises even higher the next time. But at what cost?

Aside from the fact that I’d rather take advice from a lawyer that was in good health and had had a decent night’s sleep and time to properly consider my legal problem, than from a stressed, sleep-deprived robot, what is the personal and business impact on this culture that we’ve allowed to develop?

Let’s look at the impact on business first. What’s that Richard Branson quote that pops up on social media every so often?

‘The way you treat your employees is the way they will treat your customers.’

Of course, few professionals choose to treat their customers badly, but stress affects performance. If you’re tired, stressed, pressed for time, it’s a fact that you simply won’t be providing the best service to your clients, no matter how good your intentions. And, as we know, an unguarded remark here, or a slipping deadline there, can result in financial and reputational damage to the business.

The macho stress-culture is also, I believe, gender biased. Studies show that a non-gender-diverse business performs less well than one with a reasonable degree of balance at all levels of seniority. And whilst I’m generalising, it’s often the case that male professionals are more practically able to stay late or work out-of-hours. Women often have to leave the office to attend to children or family demands, precluding them from being visible at their desk at all hours. A culture of presenteeism is stressful not only to those doing the long hours, but also to anyone that isn’t able to spend all night at their desk. And that can foster a further level of stress: those that are most visible get on, climb the ladder, become the next leaders. And so the cycle continues.

But what of the personal cost of stress? I bet you can think of someone that has – had a heart attack, a marriage breakdown, a mental breakdown, made a serious professional mistake or had to retire early – through stress. These are serious life events which can be directly attributed to work-related stress. If we discovered that Smarties directly caused all of these terrible things, we’d immediately stop eating them. But when they’re caused by this intangible thing we call ‘stress’, we ignore it and keep on keeping on…until the worst happens. Odd, isn’t it? And the only reason I can think that we do this is because we’re too afraid of the consequences of saying no to clients or employers. Fear of being ear-marked as weak, not a team-player or not sufficiently dedicated to our role, the business or the client abound, or if we don’t say yes, the next business along the street will. We’re literally putting the demands of our employment and our customers above our personal health and well-being until we are forced to cave in. Those at the top got there through the long hours culture, so why shouldn’t we have to? But wait, we know that Millenials have woken up and are smelling the cold-filtered Colombian arabica coffee – they are demanding flexibility, diversity, work-life balance and a new approach. And by making such requests, they are derided as work-shy. I wonder if their demands are a product of them having seen their frazzled, tired, unhappy parents who never had enough time for them and now they’re simply saying they don’t want the same for their life or their kids? Tell me again how they’ve got it wrong?

It’s a difficult one. We live in a fast-paced, competitive culture which is, in effect, the modern version of survival of the fittest. So what’s my advice to navigate through it?

  • Create boundaries and apply them rigorously. Remember, would you want to be operated on by a brain surgeon that had been operating for 18-hours straight already? No. The same applies to you and your customers: you will give and they will get a far better service if you are well, and your stress-levels are manageable.
  • Be honest. If you have to (or shock, want to) leave to pick the kids up from school or tend to your elderly parent, say so. Businesses are run by humans and we can each find ourselves juggling multiple work and non-work pressures from time-to-time. Show a little honesty and don’t feel guilty for it. Truthfulness and vulnerability can often bring a compassionate and understanding response.
  • Exercise. We’re regularly told about the importance of exercise but, frankly, it’s difficult to do when you can’t remember the last time you saw the end of your in-box or find time to go to the loo. But going for a swim, a walk, a jog or similar pays dividends. Readers will know I’m alert to mental health issues and I can attest that making time to exercise 3 or 4 times a week makes a massive difference.
  • Speak up. Most employers have policies and procedures to ensure employee wellness and to mitigate the effects of stress. But if no one uses those tools or admits to needing help, they might be lost and it may give further credence to the 24/7 culture. Let’s de-stigmatise stress. Let’s start a conversation about it and support each other rather than hiding it and feeling like a failure.
  • Don’t self-medicate. Alcohol or over-eating are not going to solve the problem, they’re just a temporary escape. Address the cause of the stress, don’t just seek to avoid it.
  • Take your holidays as holidays. Back in the day, when unscrupulous industrial-revolution employers worked their staff to the bone in work-houses and factories, they kept falling ill and dying. How very inconvenient. So mandatory minimum working conditions and leave periods were introduced. So keep in mind that holidays are a necessity, not a luxury, and don’t feel guilty for taking them. If you don’t get a break from the stress, one of those awful life events I’ve spoken of WILL happen.

Are you stressed? What are you going to do about it? I’d love to know.

Stress is undoubtedly a vital boost when in a life-or-death or short-term high-performance situation. That’s what it’s good for. But what is pernicious, persistent, high-level, long-term stress good for?

Absolutely nothing.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Roy McCarthy says:

    Well thought through, well written George. Sticking to work-related stressors we’re all locked in to the cycle of performance and achievement. In a corporate and personal sense we always need to be succeeding, achieving. Another promotion, a bigger car, better holidays. Never satisfied, then we die. The day we learn to want less, to be satisfied with sufficiency, to spend our short lives appreciating what we have rather than what we don’t have, we’ll be less stressed and far happier.

    Liked by 1 person

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