According to the UK’s Health & Safety Executive, over 500,000 people suffer from work related stress, depression or anxiety, resulting in 12.5 million working days lost every year.
Things get worse in high office where depression (in which work-related stress may be a causal factor) in leaders exhibits a poorer response to treatment according to a European Neuropsychopharmacology study.
It’s a huge challenge that attracts many recommended solutions from dietary changes to mindfulness – the Mental Health Foundation has several suggestions for managing stress.
Regrettably, many of these tools, tricks and hacks miss the mark thanks to a fundamental lack of clarity on how our minds work, exacerbated by a cultural propensity for attributing suffering to causes beyond our personal control.
So let’s explore the subjective dynamics of stress:
- Something external happens: an event, a stimulus, a ‘stressor’ – perhaps a passing comment from a colleague
- It enters your consciousness usually through two of the five senses – sight and sound
- At this point it is no longer external – it exists within your mind as a thought
- You make a judgement and assess the stimulus
- As a result of the judgement, you feel a negative emotion such as fear, anger or guilt
- This triggers a physical reaction which is externalised creating a feedback loop
Every human being is familiar with the beginning and end of this process. Fewer are able to catch the discrete steps as they unfold, and the opportunities that they give for interrupting the toxic cycle.
Because many have not been trained to observe this chain reaction of stress, we instinctively blame our feelings on external events – a careless driver, a thoughtless boss, a selfish friend. From childhood we are encouraged to deal with and change others’ behaviour to alleviate the impact of our feelings.
Those of us that have learnt that giving full expression to our immediate emotions can be counter-productive, practice restraint. Invoking the ‘count to 10’ rule can mitigate confrontation but may not attenuate the feelings involved. At this point an internal feedback loop takes over, constantly replaying the thinking and feeling of the event internally, even when the external stimulus is removed. This process represents nothing less than abuse of our faculties and is the principal mechanism of stress.
So how do we address the problem?
The only truly effective means of interrupting this destructive cycle, whether it is internalised or externalised, is to intervene at the point where a judgement is made – step 4 above. When the mind is clear, calm and composed, you can, with practice, begin to notice a pause between the stimulus and the judgement of it. The calmer you are, the easier it is to catch it, and that is all you have to do. The perception of the pause or gap presents a choice which is no longer reactive or habitual – it is present. The rest is down to you. You have full discretion over what happens next, giving you the opportunity to transform a learnt reaction into a considered response.
Calming the mind to the point where its workings become clear is best achieved through one or all of the following four methods:
- Reflection – turning attention inwards to explore your mental and emotional dynamics
- Dialogue – reflecting with someone else, typically a therapist or coach
- Mindfulness – maintaining a state of awareness
- Meditation – training the attention to maintain focus
The causal link between stress and depression is easy to see in these terms: the cycle of negativity, whether internal or external, intensifies feelings, whilst the belief that the situation is to blame magnifies the sense of hopelessness.
With depression overtaking obesity on GP lists of most common illnesses (NHS Digital) it is crucial that we develop attitudes and practices of mind that preempt stress and depression before clinical intervention is required. The cost to the economy of poor mental health is now estimated by the Stevenson Report to be in excess of £74bn.
Addressing the stress of leadership is fundamental to responding to this challenge since leaders, by the very nature of their roles, are best placed to tackle organisational stress. Conversely, they can also be instrumental in propagating it. Their appreciation of the inner dynamics of stress is critical to tackling the growing burden of stress on our lives. It really is all in the mind.