Why Stress Is Not Necessary

We are not designed for long term stress.

It causes us physical damage.

Coping mechanisms disguise the problem, they do not solve it.

If you broke a leg would you develop a coping strategy to continue to live with the broken leg, or would you get the leg repaired.


A good day can sometimes be characterised by an event that occurred. An order that was won or a singular success that has put everyone on a high.

But life is not about singular successes.

We don't get married because there was one singular event that turned into love, we don't support our football team because of one goal that they scored.

The quality of our lives, the way we feel about ourselves is about an ongoing repeated series of small events.

If these events are positive then we will feel good.

If the sum of these events is negative then we start to feel bad.

The human body is a remarkable thing that is designed in all circumstances to protect itself.

When we become stressed the body has an automatic reaction to defend itself.

The reason is that the part of the brain that deals with logical thought shuts down. This allows all of the processing power to concentrate on one of two very simple operations.

Fight or Flight.

If this processing power computes that your chances of survival are better if you stayed put then your brain will decide to fight and prepare your body accordingly. If on the other hand your brain's assessment of the danger is such that your chances of survival are best if you run away, your brain will get revved up, point the body in the right direction and will concentrate all its power on making the flight successful.

This fight or flight reaction is necessarily of a short duration.

This is the emergency response during which short term damage to the body is accepted in exchange for the alternative which is non survival.

In fight or flight mode the body switches off the normal routine maintenance functions and is concentrating on pure survival.

Unfortunately our modern lives are not quite that simple.

Our day has become full of situations that cause us stress but for which we are not allowed either of our two natural responses.

If we are at work and the boss shouts at us for failing to reach a quota or for misplacing last months invoices, we are not allowed to run or fight.

Instead we are obliged to stand and listen until such time as the boss runs out of rhetoric or forgets why he started shouting in the first place.

This leaves a huge amount of unresolved stress which in our ancestors would be removed by an adrenaline fuelled activity such as fighting or running.

In the modern world, after the incident that caused the stress, we look for the release from the stress in different adrenaline fuelled activities.

We break something, we shout at someone else, we sabotage our work.

These actions are a direct result of being stressed and are our physiological reaction to the stress that we feel.

These are our short term reactions to situations that frustrate us and over which we have no control.

But during our working day the number of times that we are put under stress is increasing and there are only a finite number of opportunities to relieve that stress.

This leaves the body with a problem.

There is too much stress and not enough opportunity to relieve it.

The long term effect of stress on the body is physically damaging.

We are not designed to be able to manage stress in the long term.

Our bodies respond to stress in a way that can only be supported in the short term because stress is supposed to indicate an emergency reaction.

If the stress continues we begin to suffer damage to our bodies as a result of the extended time in a condition that was only ever meant to be used for short term emergencies.

We create real musculo-skeletal problems for ourselves as a result of extended stress which causes real sickness and long term absence from work.

If the stress that caused the problem that made us sick is still present at work then we will never be able to return to a productive life.

But the body has an answer.

In the modern work place, when we become frustrated we get angry that we are not allowed to do our job and therefore become stressed.

But we only become stressed if we care.

We all want to be able to do a good job because we want to care about what we do.

We want to able to say "Look at me I did that", we want to be proud of what we do.

If however we are frustrated in our ability to be proud by something outside of our control we start to become stressed.

The body at this point makes a choice in order to avoid the long term damage that continuous stress causes the body, the body chooses to switch off the stress.

The body does this by ceasing to care.

We can only get stressed if we care about the consequences of our actions.

The body by ceasing to care ceases to be stressed and therefore subject itself to damage.

This lack of care is seen by most as apathy.

It is a convenient label to stick onto a workforce to blame them for a failure to perform.

What we are seeing now is that apathy is not a function of the workforce.

Apathy is a function of the environment that has been created at work.

It is that environment that has caused the stress.

The bodies defensive reaction to the environment that has been created is apathy.

Apathy is therefore not the cause of the problems but a symptom of the failure of the environment.

If we change the environment and remove the stress such that staff no longer need to defend themselves against it by becoming apathetic then we have created the conditions that will allow people to start caring about what they do.

We allow them to take pride in what they do and ultimately allow them to take ownership.

Imagine the works manager by the gate on a Monday morning moaning to the maintenance supervisor about the quality of the staff that he has been given to work with.

"It makes me sick" he says "These guys come in here every morning and they switch off as soon as they step through that gate.

I know they do.

I see them at the weekend out shopping or at the football The same people are bright, energetic, motivated, animated and then they come in here and they deliberately switch off.

Look at them, their heads are down, they are not talking to each other, god knows when was the last time that one of them cracked a joke.

How on earth are we expected to produce anything with people like that?

The answer is that we can never expect to produce anything unless we can change the working environment.

By removing stress from the workplace we ultimately allow the workforce to start caring about what they do.

They will be able to take pride in their work and ultimately ownership.

When that happens their performance becomes amazing and even the accountants have to admit that it was the right thing to do.

Stop coping with stress, find the cause then root it out.

Peter A Hunter, Author of "Breaking the Mould, http://www.breakingthemould.co.uk

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