Take actions against chronic stress, not high heels

by | Jul 29, 2014 | Blog | 0 comments

high heelsDoes this happen to you at work?

Getting emails at all hours on non-emergency issues?

Being expected to work on the weekends without your consent?

Hearing colleagues boast about pulling all-nighters?

An executive I coached confided that the Executive Team members often spent meeting time trying to one-up each other about extreme steps they took to do their jobs.

Examples included flying between the US and Europe twice in the same week, cancelling vacations, texting during children’s recitals, etc.

Nobody had the guts—or the common sense—to stop and question this bad behavior.

Yes, bad behavior on a couple of levels.

First, this is a form of bullying. Maybe it’s not as extreme as school playground bullies tormenting other kids. But it’s browbeating others to conform to unsustainable cultural norms.

Second, the stress raises cortisol levels in individuals. A spike here or there isn’t the problem. It’s the continually elevated levels that are the trouble. That can lead to premature aging and other health woes, which is why the reference to unsustainable cultural norms.

As background, cortisol is a hormone that the body releases in response to stress. Its role is to increase blood sugar, suppress the immune system, and aid in metabolism so you can run from the buffalo or any bad guy chasing you.

For some time now, scientists, health care professionals and others who pay attention to these issues have known about the link between chronic stress and health care problems.

For instance, as I’ve been studying in my applied neuroscience courses, chronic stress can lead to a weakened immune system (yes, there’s a reason you may feel you’re never getting over your colds and bugs), hypertension, hardening and narrowing of the arteries,damage to neurons and chromosomes and depression to name just a few.

And for those of us who are knowledge workers, the problems can be even more severe. Chronic stress can cause memory loss and make it more difficult to learn new things and think clearly and creatively.

As Tony Schwartz of The Energy Project keeps emphasizing, the way we’re working isn’t working any more. We’re not machines that can run 24/7; we’re humans who need to rest and recharge.

According to Schwartz, we perform better when we’re expending and regularly renewing energy across each of our four core needs: sustainability (physical); security (emotional); self-expression (mental); and significance (spiritual).

Yet, we and the individuals who monitor work conditions seem preoccupied with just the physical. The Wall Street Journal featured a somewhat amusing story this week on Safety Cops Patrol the Office For High Heels. The article reported that “field-inspired safety protocols are migrating to the office, where hazards include dripping umbrellas, the height of high heels and hot cups of coffee.”

Well, having survived my fair share of accidents with hot coffee spills and high heels over my career, I think hot coffee and high heels, either together or by themselves, pose minor dangers compared with the stratospheric stress levels many office workers are now experiencing.

As Dr. Bob Miliani, lean leader and teacher, observes in his insightful blog post EH&S and Lean, “In each of the organizations that I have worked in, the mandate for EH&S (Employee Health & Safety) departments has been principally related to physical safety, ergonomics, and compliance to various laws and regulations. While the focus on physical safety is admirable, it does not go far enough. It must also include mental safety, which is most often compromised by workplace stress.”

Until EH&S departments and leaders start paying attention to stress levels at the organizational level, what can you do as a leader to protect your personal well-being and your team members well-being to ensure good performance?

Try these five actions:

  1. Role model good habits that are known to reduce stress levels. This includes exercising, sleeping, eating healthy foods, uni-tasking (instead of multi-tasking), being mindful, etc. You don’t have to be perfect; however, you should make an attempt to be good in a bad world and build healthy, stress-reducing habits.
  2. Recognize others who practice good habits. Encourage them to continue and persuade others to join them.
  3. Speak up when others brag about what they consider their heroic actions that are really masquerading as stress-inducting conduct for them or others. (If you don’t always feel comfortable “speaking truth to power” at least ignore their brags.)
  4. Include brain-friendly practices in your meetings. This starts with using agendas, keeping meetings short (no more than 90 minutes)and keeping people in a positive or neutral state, rather than fearful.
  5. If you think someone may be on the verge of overwhelm, speak up. If you work in a culture that encourages extreme stressful actions, it’s especially important to intervene.

If we can bring down the stress levels at work, we’ll be able to halt our pre-mature aging and work smarter, healthier and be happier.

Are you ready to be a stress-buster?


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