Stress, Health, and Workplace Culture

75 to 90% of all visits to primary care physicians result from stress-related disorders. Paul Rosch, M.D., President, American Institute of Stress

A couple of evenings ago, I was involved in what turned out to be a fascinating discussion with some very astute colleagues about the role of stress in the lives of executives and other high-achieving professionals. What we concluded ultimately was that stress was “the new smoking.” When we compared the role that smoking played in our society 20 or 30 years ago to the role it plays now, we noticed that in the past, before the long-term damaging effects were clearly understood, smoking was so common it was considered the norm, heavily supported and reinforced by popular culture, the media, in social situations and even the majority of workplaces. It was perceived as positive, and associated with being sophisticated, powerful, rugged, glamorous and even “sexy.”

Now, due to increased awareness of the devastating effects to health, smokers are looked down upon, ostracized and barred from most public places, especially the workplace. Social norms no longer support or encourage this behavior, and organizations are well aware of their liability and culpability if they put employees at risk. We likened this to the high-stress work style that is currently the norm in corporations and other large organizations today.

Hard-driving executives and high-level professionals are rewarded, applauded and admired for their willingness to work very long hours, respond immediately and compete with peers, often with serious personal consequences. And, our advances in technology such as faxes, cell-phones, Blackberries, and I-phones have exacerbated this trend by making being responsive to work around the clock an expectation rather than an exception.

Some of the consequences are fairly immediate, such as errors in judgment, mistakes or omissions due to information overload or lack of alertness due to inadequate rest. Indeed, in these circles, needing little sleep is a badge of honor, something expected and aspired to, and
anyone who admits to needing more than five hours of sleep daily is regarded as a “slacker” or a “wimp.” Other consequences are longer term, such as the deterioration of relationships with staff
due to stress-induced impatience and irritability, or even more importantly, loss of relationship with children or a spouse due to neglect and unresponsiveness to their needs.

Consider this quote from Bryan Dyson, CEO of Coca Cola Enterprises from 1959- 1994, (and obviously way ahead of his time):

“Imagine life as a game in which you are juggling five balls in the air. You name them – work, family, health, friends, and spirit – and you’re keeping all of these in the air. You will soon
understand that work is a rubber ball. If you drop it, it will bounce back. But the other four balls – family, health, friends, and spirit are made of glass. If you drop one of these, they will be irrevocably scuffed, marked, nicked, damaged, or even shattered. They will never be the same. You must understand that and strive for balance in your life.”

Most recently, scientific evidence is mounting indicating that this level of severe and unrelenting stress affects our bodies long before we are aware of the damage it causes in serious and even deadly ways. Consider these:

  • According to the American Institute of Stress, primary care physicians in the U.S. report from 75 to 90% of all patient visits are related to stress, and, up to 90% of all health problems in this country are related to stress. Too much stress can contribute to and agitate many health problems including heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, depression and sleep disorders. Additional studies confirm the debilitating effects of stress on our health:
  • Three 10-year studies concluded that emotional stress was more predictive of death from cancer and cardiovascular disease than smoking. People who were unable to effectively manage their stress had a 40% higher death rate than non-stressed individuals.
  • A Harvard Medical School study of 1,623 heart attack survivors found that when subjects got angry during emotional conflicts, their risk of subsequent heart attacks was more than double that of those that remained calm.
  • A 20-year study of over 1,700 older men conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health found that worry about social conditions, health and personal finances all significantly increased the risk of coronary heart disease.
  • Over one-half of heart disease cases are not explained by the standard risk facts, such as high cholesterol, smoking or sedentary lifestyle.
  • According to a Mayo Clinic study of individuals with heart disease, psychological stress was the strongest predictor of future cardiac events, such as cardiac death, cardiac arrest and heart attacks.
  • Are you paying attention yet? Stress affects people emotionally, mentally, and physically. Although we often look outside of ourselves for sources of stress, stress is really caused by our reactions to the so called “stressors” in our environment. At the same time, the culture in our current society and in particular in most corporate workplaces makes living the high pressure, long-hours, always “on” life seem “heroic” , admired, and expected if one wants to succeed.

    So, my group of colleagues, who have been paying attention to all these trends posited, and probably rightly so, that twenty years from now we will see the true long-term effects of chronic stress. Just as we now see the cumulative effects on our bodies of decades of damage from
    smoking, we can expect to see the devastating effects of decades of damage from chronic stress.
    They predicted our workplace and cultural norms would change based on this, just as they have
    with how we view smoking, but unfortunately, also just like the experience of most people who have smoked most of their adult lives, too late to prevent chronic illness and sometimes premature death.

    What can you do to change this trajectory for yourself and other people who work for you or your organization? There are dozens of steps that you can take now. A few include:

    1. Become Educated. Learn more about the interrelationship with health, vitality and stress. Read the research; find out what’s known and what’s being discovered.

    2. Learn new skills. Begin practicing stress management techniques and tools in your own life

    3. Set goals and timelines for specific actions to reduce stress and improve balance. Implement your new knowledge about stress to develop personal change, (and if you have control over this), the organizational culture change necessary to support a less stressful norm.

    4. Get support. Develop internal organizational support, identify a “wellness team”, work with a spouse, family member, or close friend or colleague to support you in you efforts. Or, alternatively, consider working with a coach to keep you focused and accountable.

    And, in the words of Charles (Chip) Lutz, “Be a willow.” Learn to be more like a willow, which remains firm at its trunk, but can sway with the breeze. Create an atmosphere of flexibility. Learn where you can flex and try to expand on this. As the parent of a teenager, one of my favorite mantras is “pick your battles.” Figure out how you can stay true to core values and principles and still be more flexible. And, think about how you can create more fun in the workplace and then do it! Remember, if you are a leader you are “the amplified voice”, and what you articulate and, especially, what you model has a more powerful impact over others than you may even imagine.

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