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How to keep stress useful

13 Oct 2017

There’s more to stress than its problems – how to keep stress useful

With growing recognition of the importance of Mental Health, it’s not surprising that more organisations are looking to address stress - and it’s not just about being a responsible employer.  Based on the national averages, the direct cost of stress and mental health-related absence and resignations is around £600 per employee per year, so there are also substantial financial gains from getting it right.

The sources of stress are countless, many of them from outside the workplace.  In my national stress survey, people said that on average, 40% of their total stress has nothing to do with work. Which creates the first of the challenges for employers looking to reduce its effects.  Most approaches focus on trying to manage the stress, which although it’s better than not managing, isn’t a long-term solution.  Here’s why….. 

Typically as the stress builds, it reaches a point where it becomes unpleasant, so we start to do something different.  Whether that’s taking time out to be mindful, dropping lower priority tasks,  talking things through with a supportive colleague, or exercising more regularly.  And if it works, that stress starts to reduce.  We start to feel better, whatever we were doing differently tails off, and the stress builds back up again.  It’s a bit like Yo-Yo dieting, and just as ineffective

The biggest drawback to trying to manage stress is that it requires us to do something differently, consistently.  And we don’t always do what’s good for us. Life gets in the way (especially when we’re feeling stressed or overloaded), so the good intentions can fall by the wayside. Not only is the stress back to the same level, but it can also leave us feeling that we’ve failed or fallen short.

But there’s more to stress than the problems it can cause. There’s a threshold, above which the amount of stress someone’s facing outstrips their resources for dealing with it, and it becomes unpleasant.  But below that threshold, where the stress is matched by the resources, it can be really useful - the challenges we rise to, and connections we form by supporting each other. The skill you’re determined to master, the promotion you’re working towards, or the loved one’s challenges you’re supporting them through.These are the stresses which give life meaning (even if they’re not ones you’d have chosen to experience).  We learn and grow from them – and it’s in this ‘useful stress’ zone that your organisation gets the very best from its people.

In my workplace stress survey, 33% of people said they enjoy the stress of their role.Yet managing focuses our attention only on the problem stresses, the ones which drain rather than energise. And unfortunately, the more you focus your attention on something, the more you notice. If you’re not convinced, choose a colour of car which you think is fairly unusual, and over the next few days while you’re out and about, see how many of them you spot when you’re actively looking. When you’re expecting problem stress, you’re more likely to be bothered by little things, taking up more of your resources, and pushing you over that threshold. 

So how can your organisation keep stress in the useful zone?  Here are a just a few of the ways…

Keep noticing what’s working, as well as what’s not. What are the stresses which bring out your people’s best – what challenges are they rising to and growing from? Simply increasing the awareness that not all stress is bad can make a massive difference. 

Build good problem-solving:  A lot of the organisations I support are struggling to break out of reactive firefighting, and reacting to the same problems over and over again is a sure way to push up the stress.  What systems do you have, and how do people support each other to get problems solved, rather than just recovering from the symptoms?

When there’s little you can do to remove the sources of the stress (especially with so many from outside work), one of the most powerful approaches is to develop your people’s inner resources – raising the problem threshold so they take more of the day to day stresses smoothly in their stride.  No organisation would expect to be successful without equipping its people with the necessary skills, and one of the most powerful skills they can develop is that ability to deal smoothly with adversity.

So that you don’t have to rely on managing to get the very best from stress. 

Sue Evans, creator, FAST Pathways programme

Sue Evans combines experience of leading organisational culture change with expertise in resolving stress and anxiety, embedding systems and practices to deliver results. Her FAST Pathways® programme is designed to embed the skills to keep stress useful.

Mental health in the workplace

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