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Stretched vs. stressed: a workplace culture issue?

As we enter a new year, it feels like a good time to really look at our approach to understanding and managing language and attitudes to stress in the workplace.

Being stressed is defined as “experiencing mental or emotional strain or tension” which in isolation, or in key moments, is fine and completely appropriate. Stress can be a motivator, a response management tool, and a method of protection in threat assessment.

On the other hand, we also know that an increasing exposure to unmanageable, or uncontained, stress is not positive. The hormones and instincts in our body, which exist to respond to the demands of our environment, are there to help us survive and thrive. We receive boosts of adrenaline and cortisol as a mechanism to help our body react and take action – neither of which are of concern when in small doses. However, over exposure to adrenaline and cortisol is known to have adverse effects on our wellbeing.

Cortisol, for example, is effective in a fight-flight situation by supressing what is considered as ‘non-essential’ bodily functions if our life is at risk – such as temporarily stopping the standard use of our digestive system (hence when in stressful situations people experience changes in their need to use the toilet). In a moment of stress/risk assessment, cortisol helps to provide glucose to the bloodstream and increase how our brain utilises it, but if we don’t manage to resolve the situation quickly and effectively– what happens to our body?

If we are continually feeling stressed and under attack in/from our environment, the over-exposure to this worry can really start to impact our body. Continued cortisol production is known to impact many areas of our wellbeing including longer term digestive problems, reduced immune system strength, anxiety, muscle tension, fatigue, pain, sleep impact and much more.

So how can cultures develop when language presents a position of being ‘really stressed’ as a form of ‘badge of honour’?

All too often you can hear people in the workplace in almost accidental competition over topics such as who is the most stressed, who has the most impacted sleep and who is exposed to the biggest pressures. The desire to prove who is worse off is not just generally unhealthy but also minimises the pressures that others around them are facing. These conversations can be damaging for many reasons.

Language choice is often key. How we speak about situations and the emotions we attach to them will also bring physical changes in our body - both negative and positive. As an immediate impact during conversations about stress, you can often observe changes in behaviours as stress indicators become visible such as:

· Tension in the jaw

· Tension in the body – especially around the neck and shoulders

· Increased pace/tone changes in speech

· Gesticulation and more erratic movement when communicating

· Fidgeting and pacing

· Changes in heart rate/breath

As people use the word ‘stress’ with such an attachment to themselves, it heightens their engagement with the emotion of being ‘stressed’. This repeated use of the word takes it from a momentary feeling to a state of being and almost an identity. “I am stressed” is used instead of “I am experiencing/feeling stress”, adding a form of permanence to the emotion.

Culturally when these conversations, or potentially uncontrolled outbursts, occur it can impact how others’ views their own stress levels. Whilst some may share this feeling of pressure and tension, those who were not originally feeling this way can start to question why they don’t feel it if others do. If there is a culture where being overloaded and busy is an expectation, perhaps even a tolerated guarantee, then it may be that those who manage pressure well could start to feel they need to demonstrate the same feelings externally to justify their place in the group. Some workplace cultures can inadvertently judge and question those who don’t feel or voice the same stress, as if they aren’t working hard enough – whilst also unintentionally reinforcing a perception of stress across the workforce.

Neural pathways in the brain grow and develop all the time. When we have a new thought process (whether emotionally neutral, positive, or negative) the more we think it, the more deeply it embeds. If we repeatedly are exposed to negative thoughts of stress and then perceive that we should be stressed, our body/brain does not know to challenge it. As a result, we can reinforce the feeling in such a way that the temporary feeling becomes more permanent; the views of others can accidentally become our own.

If we look at group behaviour and conformity, there are suggestions from studies that show people in specific groups gravitate to a collective outcome/opinion in certain situations rather than sticking with their own perception or understanding of a scenario.

A study from the 1950s by psychologist Solomon Asch looked at how a group performed in being able to identify the same sized lines from 2 different sets of visuals. The groups involved were impacted by having people in the test group who already knew about the study and were there to influence others in the group, to see if they would conform with someone else’s idea – even if they saw the fact as different. The results from the test showed that nearly 1/3 of those in the experiment conformed with a clearly incorrect outcome. Over 12 trials around 75% conformed at least once. So why is this important? Whilst we know that no study can accurately represent all humans, The Asch Effect refers to the influence of the group majority on an individual’s judgment. It generally suggests that people will conform to avoid ridicule and to fit in, or because they feel others are better informed than them.

Applying this to the workplace can show how even if others don’t believe the same as the rest of the group, they may unconsciously amend their views or behaviours to fit in or because they feel they are somehow incorrect in their own judgment.

From this accidental embedding, there can be an environment where individuals feel the need to look as stressed and busy, or as impacted as others are, when in fact demonstrating ability to cope with the demands of our environment, whilst also setting healthy boundaries, are the positive characteristics to combat stress that should be sought.

We also need to consider that many people’s individual assessment of stress is correct for them in that moment, based on several factors.

Windows of tolerance

Everyone has their own ‘window of tolerance’ which can fluctuate over time and with varying life pressures as they are faced. Individual tolerance levels can vary - if already feeling under a lot of pressure, a seemingly small situation (which may not usually bother us) could be far more intense to manage than it usually would be. Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England refer to the concept of a ‘stress container’ with an understanding that we all have our own capacity and limit before we metaphorically overflow and are unable to manage the demands of our environment.

Frame of reference

Individuals have their own ‘frame of reference’ meaning that we are all unique, with differing view points, experiences and perceptions. Our frame of reference is impacted by every component of our individuality – life experiences, exposure to trauma, how we have been brought up, where we live, our physical and mental capacity, religious beliefs and much more. All these differences mean we can see or feel different things in certain circumstances.

Life is relative

Just because one person finds something stressful does not mean others will and vice-versa. We must appreciate that thresholds and frames of reference, combined with a person’s current life pressures, impact how we view, assess and manage difficult or pressured situations; this assessment will ultimately inform how someone responds.

So how do we overcome this?

We need to respect individual stress assessments and come from a place of understanding how to meet needs whilst also containing the externalisation and communication of stress to others. This containment is not about hiding stress but instead responding to it and being supportive to reduce the impact, instead of letting it grow and cause wider harm.

There are various ways to do this which can largely be focused around improving the supportive foundations in life that enhance resilience and perception of stress such as:

· Managing the difference of being stretched vs. being stressed

· Developing coping strategies

· Developing healthy sleep routines

· Working with what we can control and influence

· Understanding individual basic needs

· Building cultures that encourage stress management and not stress celebration

· Working with supervision records and ‘stay interviews’ to prevent stress escalating to burnout

Thrive Safe offers webinars and workshops on a variety of topics including those relating to the scenarios above.

Contact us at for more information on how we can help you to improve staff wellbeing.

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