Stress at Work. Part 1: Stress Responses

Psychologists and researchers define “emotions” in many ways. I would describe them, perhaps a little clinically, as primal impulses to act, contributing to and influenced by intuition. Feeling hungry? Eat. Feeling lonely? Talk to someone? Feeling bored? Do something interesting. Feeling scared? Run away from the scary thing. Seen this way, it is easy to see the role of emotions in prompting us, at a level below and stronger than cognitive conceptualisation, toward actions that keep us alive, safe and stimulated.

Stress is a strong emotion, with the purpose of being a strong, compelling impulse to act ahead of other action and inaction choices in the 3 stages of the motivational process. Stress is not necessarily a bad thing – we need it’s focus and urgency to get active and get things done. Without stress we find it hard to motivate ourselves to do, or even get stimulated, about much at all. With repetition a lack of stress, either as a response or as a strong sense of purpose, teaches the brain to slow down, moving toward a depressed state that can be associated with depression and premature death. A life without some stress is not a good thing.

Eustress is the state of having a really nice level of stress – enough to focus us and get us active, but not so much that we feel overwhelmed. Being in this state is the goal of stress management, and the ability to do that is a core skill for success in our complex modern lifestyles, especially at work. Importantly, eustress means different things for different people, both in the type of stressors being felt, and the extent to which they are being felt at any one time. Experiencing eustress regularly is a combination of mindfulness (how stressed do I feel now, and how is it affecting me?) and management (what are my priorities, what can be done later, or by someone else, and what doesn’t need to get done or can’t I control?). And yes, moderate stress leverages the action-oriented neurotransmitter norepinephrine, which is closely linked to fast stress responses – but, in moderate amounts with the right bio-chemical accomplices, it aids focus and energy.

For most people, when they talk about stress, they usually mean distress. Distress is where we feel overloaded, overwhelmed, and incapable of dealing, psychologically or physically, with the urgent demands we feel are being pressed upon us. The inability to deal with distress is linked to anxiety, in turn linked to depression, illness and premature death. When distressed, our motivation valuation pathway, instead of dealing with a few bigger and many smaller loss/reward options, is usually dealing with one huge, or quite a few large, or far too many medium-sized choices, all demanding immediate attention. And because of the motivation valuation pathway’s habit of weighing anticipated loss higher than anticipated gain, distress is more likely to arise from feelings of not being able to understand, control or attend to the things that can hurt us, especially if those threats are coming from many directions. Most people, quite understandably, would prefer to deal with one problem at a time or, if that problem is too big, to avoid it or get help in dealing with it.

But what of the distress reaction? With the purpose of distress being to react as quickly as possible to deal with immediate and overwhelming threat, it makes sense that the “default” distress response is also the fast, action-oriented fear response.

An outline of the process involved is shown below:

Graphic: Survival behaviours versus engaged and productive behavioursThis is the default process, the one that is programmed into us to survive in unpredictable and hostile physical environments where careful thinking and behavioural management are not as useful as an immediate burst of energy for fighting or running. How stressed or distressed is an employee feeling? Compare their responses to those shown in red or green above. It might well be that an avoidant coping response can be to try to ignore the distress, or at least pretend to others that it isn’t there, but with a little attention and trust this mask of control or cool becomes transparent. If you get taken by surprise, it is likely because no one was paying attention to, or checking in with, the person under pressure.

If someone is stuck in the red, there will be stressors at work or home that are pushing their distress levels consistently so high that they behave that way without much being asked of them. They’re like a kettle that’s almost at boiling point, and simply flipping the switch gets them steaming. As a manager, you can ignore this and hope it goes away, or, perhaps worse, simply demand they change their behaviour. Or, as a manager who is sincere about wanting everyone on the team to experience success and well-being as part of the team, it would be helpful to talk to the employee in a safe place and tone with a view to understanding the pressures they are experiencing. You may be able to do something about it, or it could be that the reason the employee’s kettle is seemingly almost about to boil over is not work related, or inherent in the work – they might simply be unsuited to the demands of the role.

Whatever the reason, by watching out for the behaviours noted in red or green, you’ll know that the person is simply responding to the situation they find themselves in. There is also the unstressed response, not shown in the flow chart above, where there is no or low stress, and therefore no work-pressure related response in action. More likely, the employee will slip into boredom, but the stimulus-hungry brain of most people will soon see them occupying themselves with unproductive, and possibly disruptive behaviours, like gossiping, using social media or looking for another job. Motivation through output targets, time-frames, quality standards and so on, supported by rewards such as appreciation, respect and job security, can easily help employees to stay out of the unstressed, demotivated zone. A simple chart showing the increase, and then decrease, in performance and well-being that accompany increasing stress is shown below.

Managers can easily notice employees shifting between the red, green or orange zones by simply looking at their behaviour, performance and body language, following the signals shown in both charts. An observant manager will diligently monitor these shifts, in turn allowing them to adjust workloads, responsibilities, challenges, support and rewards to keep team members in the eustress zone as much as possible. This is the home where sustainable work quality, customer service, employee engagement, team productivity, fulfilment and well-being can be reliably found. It’s a neurobiological inevitability.

The causes of stress, and the best ways to manage those experienced by employees, have commonalities grounded in the pursuit of safety and basic need fulfilment. For day to day management this can be a little deep, but if there is a long-term problem, the ability or inability of an employee to fulfil basic needs will almost certainly be a root cause of the stress they are feeling and the stress response they are exhibiting.