Workplace stress - Great Life with Kymm Nelsen

Good stress, bad stress, and your options

God stress - bad stressGood stress. Bad stress. It plays out something like a good cop-bad cop cliché in an old TV show. First stress seems to be on your side, pumping you up with confidence and energy. Then it turns on you and takes you down to the floor to show you who’s boss. The truth is, stress is here to stay and it does indeed have two sides. Even more important, unlike the good cop-bad cop scenario, with stress you choose which side you deal with.

I contributed a chapter on workplace stress to the book Women of Vision (watch for it here in Spring 2016). My chapter is called The Outrageous Cost of Stress in the Workplace and How to Stop Paying It. It discusses in more detail the differences between good and bad stress. I will pull some thoughts from that chapter to highlight how powerful you are in determining your stress experience.

What is stress?
Everyone has stress. It’s built into the system because nothing can grow or change without stress. It is useless and unproductive to try to wish it away, but it is difficult to embrace stress when it feels like a heavy, pressing force. Understanding the difference between good stress and bad stress will help you develop skills to direct that energy so that it empowers you instead of debilitates you.

Good Stress
Believe it or not, there is good stress! Good stress arises when you are ready to grow. Good stress helps you stay in the zone. It motivates you to abandon the safe and comfortable way of things and stretch into a new level of ability and empowerment in your life. Good stress occurs as you maintain the line between skill and challenge that Dr. Csikszentmihalyi talks about in the book, Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. Being in flow is how it feels when your skills are being stressed by the right level of challenge. In flow, you feel engaged, connected, and exhilarated by what you’re doing. Without the positive stress that comes from meeting new challenges and being stretched to exceed your previous accomplishments, you would become bored, dissatisfied, and disengaged in your life.

Bad Stress
Bad stress depletes you. It comes in many forms—physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. You might feel stressed physically if you are working long days without adequate time to rest and take care of your physical needs. Psychologically, you may feel pressured and overburdened, like a weight that traps you beneath a steady force of demands. Bad stress hits you when unexpected events or too many changes occur at one time and you feel emotionally unstable, insecure, or threatened in your personal or work life. You feel negative stress when you feel alone or unsupported, when you have had to focus too long and too hard, or when you feel out of touch with the things that are important to you.

Workplace Stress
Workplace stress is not an event, it’s an ongoing experience. A person who works five days a week, eight hours a day, with holidays and a two-week vacation per year, spends roughly two thousand hours every year at work. That is a big chunk of life spent in service to others’ goals. When time and resources are out of balance and when your energy is spent in service to goals or values other than your own, the toll begins to accumulate. The price of that stress is paid by everyone, including families, clients, and employers.

How to Stop Paying the Price of Bad Stress
To stop paying the price of bad stress, you do some work inside and examine the situations outside of you.

At the center of good stress is the ability to set and strive toward personal goals. In the book Drive, Daniel Pink describes three elements that help individuals feel engaged and motivated at work—autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

  • Autonomy is the ability to be self-directed, to choose how to spend and prioritize your time.
  • Mastery is that balanced line between skill and challenge that makes work feel like joy. It creates work that is absorbing, satisfying, and fulfilling.
  •  Purpose is that drive to create or serve something greater than the self. Purpose is your why, the fuel of your daily life.

The inside work is guided by these elements of drive. It requires reconnecting with your purpose, developing mastery of skills and applying them, and creating a sufficient amount of autonomy in your life to guide your efforts in meaningful ways.

When I bring these concepts up in the context of work, people often challenge me. They argue that supervisors set their goals and control their time. They point to job conditions beyond their control and co-workers who make daily life difficult. Yes, it’s true; work time is a negotiation. You agree to offer your time, attention, and talent in exchange for what the organization needs. That’s the deal. But, serving the goals of your organization does not mean you cannot find a measure of autonomy, mastery, and purpose that sustains a positive stress response for you.

This, my friend, is the challenge we all face as we navigate and negotiate the demands of the outside world. Stress is a lifelong process that can continually draw you forward into the next best version of You. To enjoy the process, you must chose to use stress as the positive tool it is, rather than be overpowered by it.

I know it’s not as simple as this brief blog post seems, but it is also easier than you might have believed. Now you have the recipe. It is up to you to look for small ways to nurture your drive and create opportunities to be in flow so that stress becomes a positive and empowering force in your life. Come back to this blog. I will continue to give you tips and how-tos that can get you on the path of stress mastery.

How to make stress a powerful ally

“The only thing that is constant is change.”  – Heraclitus

We have all heard some version of the famous “the only constant in life is change” quote from the ancient Greek philosopher, Heraclitus. Some people find this idea a relief because it means life stays fresh and new. Others respond with an exhausted sigh because it means life will never let them rest.

Your mindset about change is closely related to how you deal with stress. How is that? It comes back to what stress is. The term “stress” was created in 1936 by Dr. Hans Selye. He defined it as “the non-specific response of the body to any demand for change.” When you must change, you experience a physical response called “stress.”

Think back to the beginning of this article. Some people embrace change and others avoid it or dread it. That means that stress, just like change, isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, the people who roll with change have learned to make stress their ally instead of their enemy. What is their secret?

Stressor vs. Stress Response
The first step to making stress your ally is to recognize that “stress” is made up of two factors – the stressor and the stress response. The stressor is the thing that caused a response. It’s the change.

A stressor might be a new boss, a difficult interaction with a customer, or lack of rest.  People often feel that they have no control over the stressors in their lives. You can’t control who got hired as the new supervisor. You couldn’t stop that customer from being grumpy. You couldn’t get sleep because the baby was up all night. Stressors seem to come from circumstances beyond your control.

The stress response is how you choose to react to the change. This is where your power is. Scientists have identified three distinct stress responses that cause unique physical responses in your body: 1) fight-or-flight, 2) challenge-and-grow, or 3) tend-and-befriend. Learning to choose the right stress response is the secret to making stress your ally.

Choosing a Stress Response
Fight-or-flight. Early (actually quite extreme) stress studies indicated that there is an irrefutable fight-or-flight response that is hardwired into the biological survival mechanism. The idea is that this automatic stress response kicks in whether you like it or not when you perceive danger (aka change) in your environment. This stress response is the most primitive and instinctual. The fight-or-flight response produces a mix of stress hormones that shuts off the higher levels of thinking and reverts you to primitive reactions.  In fact, cutting edge research by Alia Crum shows that having a fight-or-flight mindset is at the root of the negative physical effects we associate with stress. This might be a good thing if a tiger is chasing you, but not so good if you are walking on stage to do a presentation.

Challenge-and-grow. Two other stress responses offer choices that you can leverage when you aren’t being chased by a tiger. When you recognize that your life isn’t in danger, you can choose a challenge-and-grow stress response. This option is best when the situation offers you an opportunity to hone your skills and grow from the change that is happening. When you are walking on stage to do a presentation or sitting down for your performance review, your decision to embrace the challenge and grow signals your body to release a different mix of stress hormones. This mix includes neurological activators that wake up your brain and help you perform at your best. Those same activators enable your brain to integrate what you learned during stress recovery.

Tend-and-befriend. The third option when a tiger isn’t chasing you is called the tend-and-befriend stress response. This reaction harkens back to our improved chances of survival as members of a group versus the high risk of being isolated and alone. When a situation arises that offers an opportunity to build or strengthen relationships, you can choose to extend your social connections. That decision activates a stress hormone mix that includes oxytocin, which causes you to become more sensitive toward and aware of others. This response helps you build strong business partnerships, deepen understanding within teams, and bond more closely with friends and family.

Your moment of choice
The trick to the making stress your ally is to be aware when the first biological stress signals start.  You feel the adrenaline hit and your heart beat increases. This is the moment when you decide what type of response you will have. Teach yourself to recognize that signal and do a quick assessment of the situation. If you’re not being chased by a tiger, then decide whether you will go with challenge-and-grow or tend-and-befriend. Both options let you leverage the stress energy into a powerful ally that will move you forward toward your goals.