You’re traveling for the 4th time this month. The company’s sales are down and your business unit risks missing its numbers this quarter. You and your team are pulling out all the stops. You’re catching an early morning flight to call on several potential customers.
You’ll miss your daughter’s dance recital (again). Your spouse called this morning about an email from your son’s teacher that his grades are way down. No time to talk. Have to catch a flight. You feel your pulse racing and a slight throbbing in your head. Coffee this morning will help. And a stiff drink before bed should help, or so you think.
Constant multi-tasking, juggling responsibilities, deadlines, errands and to-do lists. On top of that, your diet isn’t what it should be, you’re getting too little sleep and you haven’t exactly been a regular at the gym.
For many of us today, that’s what stress looks like. By now, we all know the basic outlines of what stress is, how it feels. But we often forget what purpose it was designed to serve.
“The stress response is a normal adaptive coping response that evolved over hundreds of millions of years to help our ancestors avoid sticks and get carrots,” says Rick Hanson, PhD, a neuropsychologist and author of Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom (New Harbinger, 2009). “It’s natural. What’s also natural, though — and you see it in the wild — is that most stressful episodes are resolved quickly, one way or another. The natural biological, evolutionary blueprint is to have long periods of mellow recovery after bursts of stress.”
For early humans (and other animals in the wild), stress usually meant responding to imminent threats (being hunted) or imminent opportunity (doing the hunting), followed by release and recovery. Flight or fight. It wasn’t, as science and common sense tells us, something we should deal with 10 hours a day.
According to the “The Science of Stress,” posted on Experience Life, here’s what happens when our stress response is activated: “When we experience a stress trigger, the fast-acting part of the nervous system releases adrenaline. Meanwhile, the hypothalamus produces corticotropin-releasing hormones, initiating a sequence that finishes with the production of the stress hormone cortisol.”
Now, on the upside, acute stress not only helps us navigate dangerous terrain by heightening our senses and adrenal response, it focuses our attention and all our capacities on critical, short-term problems. It also strengthens our immune system through the release of small proteins called cytokines. Think of this as the brain’s version of high intensity physical training in short bursts. It’s uncomfortable and painful but in the right dose, makes you stronger, fitter, better.
On the other hand, chronic stress – where the spigot is turned on but can’t be turned off – is downright dangerous. In this mode, stress floods the body with stress hormones that over time increase our body’s inflammatory response, damaging our immune system and increasing the wear and tear on our cardiovascular system. And, critical to business, it impairs our ability to think clearly and creatively – the main ingredients in solving complex problems. This is the brain’s version of over-training, which leads to injury and, in the long-run, getting weaker and less fit.
For business (let alone life outside of our work) here’s the challenge: The complex, multi-dimensional, 24/7 world we’re operating in – the one that requires creativity and positivity to navigate effectively – is exactly the world that prevents us from solving the most pressing problems our businesses face when we’re under chronic stress.
The pace of change and disruption in business today is accelerating, and that’s not going to change. So, now more than ever, businesses today need creative, nimble problem solvers capable of both executing on current business plans as well as seeing around corners to new disruptions and new opportunities. Chronically stressed leaders and their employees won’t get you there. Engaged, open and creative problem solvers will.
Just this week, Radio Shack began bankruptcy auction proceedings. While not a shock, it is a reminder of yet another once-significant player in the market failing to adapt and keep pace with change. As this piece on Fox Business online notes, change and adaptation are hard and create stress. And the only way to get ahead of the pace of change is an intentional workplace culture that unleashes positive engagement and creativity – in other words, one free of toxic stress.
How do businesses reconcile the demands of the hyper-connected, hyper-connected world and the need for calmer minds to move the business ahead and see around corners?
That’s the question I’ll explore in my third post.