The events that unfolded in 2020 were unexpected by most. People experienced an array of disruptions including job loss, work or school relocation and additional responsibilities at home and at work. Many of us have suffered from a lack of in person connection and have likely experienced an array of emotions resulting from multiple crises and tragedies across our nation.
For much of 2020, people have had more questions than answers. Now that 2021 has begun we may have more answers. However, we will still continue to experience uncertainty and change. Enduring continuous change and uncertainty can result in increased feelings of stress. For some of us, stress can feel positive and motivating. For others, stress can hinder job performance, satisfaction and wellbeing.
HOW WE THINK ABOUT STRESS MATTERS
You’ve probably heard about the negative effects of stress on the body—a weakened immune system, accelerated aging process, increased risk of heart disease and the risk of exhaustion and burnout. It turns out, this negative view of stress is only partially correct. While it is true that stress can have negative impacts including an increased risk for an early death, it’s not the stress itself that is the culprit. Ultimately, the way you think about stress is proven to be more harmful than the body’s response to a stressful event.
In the TedTalk How to Make Stress Your Friend, psychologist Kelly McGonigal explains how changing how we think about stress will not only make us healthier, it will also change our body’s response to stress. For example, Kelly shares a University of Wisconsin-Madison study tracking US adults for over eight years which reveals, “People who experienced a lot of stress in the previous year had a 43 percent increased risk of dying, but that was only true for the people who also believed that stress is harmful for their health. People who experienced a lot of stress but did not view stress as harmful were no more likely to die. In fact, they had the lowest risk of dying than anyone in the study, including people who had relatively little stress.”
Kelly also describes research out of Stanford University that indicates if participants view their stress response as helpful, or as their body rising to meet a challenge, their blood vessels don’t contract as with other participants. In fact, their physical response resembled the human response during moments of joy and courage. If we view stress as a positive, energizing experience, we can rescind the negative effects of stress on our health.
WE ARE BUILT TO MANAGE STRESS
Although it may not feel like it at times, the human body is designed to manage stress in healthy ways. During a stressful event or situation, the body releases the neuro-hormone oxytocin that supports the fine tuning of our brain’s social instincts. This causes us to develop deeper relationships and crave physical contact. Oxytocin also increases our empathy, compassion and caring towards others. In essence, the body’s natural response to stress encourages us to seek social connection and comfort. This is our built-in resilience in times of stress.
Also, oxytocin doesn’t just make us want to seek connection. It also protects our cardiovascular systems from the effects of stress and helps heart cells regenerate and heal from stress-induced damage. The physical benefits of oxytocin are enhanced when we connect with others to give or receive support. In turn, this enables us to better respond to stress and recover more quickly from its effects.
External and internal trends and forces within our organizations are likely to continue to change. This may cause some employees to continue to experience the negative effects of stress. While it’s impossible to remove stress from the equation, we can support individuals in our organizations to embrace change and better use stress to achieve a positive result.
WHAT CAN LEADERS DO TO SUPPORT STRESS MANAGEMENT?
Openly Discuss Stress
- Prepare employees to have a positive mindset about stressful experiences or obstacles within their role. Have a conversation with your team about the benefits of viewing stress in a positive way and seeking connection during stressful times.
- During regular one-on-one connections with your direct reports, inquire about individual workloads and feelings of stress. Personal and environmental factors will affect workers differently. Because of this, it can be helpful to discuss factors outside of the workplace that cause people stress as well.
- As you experience stressful situations share those with your team. Not only will this help you build stress resilience, you are also modeling for your team how to seek connection and manage a stressful situation.
Culture of Care
Caring for others creates resilience. In her TedTalk, Kelly leaves us with a final piece of advice. She describes another study in which researchers discovered that every major stressful life experience increased a person’s risk of dying by 30 percent except for people who spent time caring for others in the past year. This group of individuals showed no stress related increase of dying. How can we incorporate caring in the workplace?
- Encourage vulnerability, trust and connection to create psychologically safe teams and support systems within the organization.
- Put people first and model the four behaviors of resilient leaders.
- Promote friendships in the workplace. People are more resilient to stress when they connect with others and seek support.
- Incorporate corporate social responsibility initiatives and opportunities to give back and volunteer into team culture.
By changing our mindset about stress and increasing our connection and care for others, we can thrive through the changing and challenging situations that lie before us. What else can we do to manage change and stress in our organizations? Share your thoughts in the comments below.