It’s time to make workplace stress history
Let’s take a trip back 10,000 years. You’re a hunter-gatherer living on the plains, trying to provide for your young family. While tracking a deer, you hear a sound behind you. It’s a wolf. And it’s accompanied by its entire pack. Stress! Suddenly you switch from hunter to hunted. You don’t have time to think. You run. You run for your cave and the safety of your group. Your heart is pounding. The adrenaline is coursing through your veins as you make it to safety. Wow! That was terrifying. But within a few minutes, you’ve recovered and it’s just another story for the campfire.
You probably find it hard to relate to running from wild beasts. It’s not part of your everyday life. But this kind of situation was pretty typical for about 98% of human history. It’s what shaped our bodies and brains.
You may be surprised to know that 10,000 years is only 500 generations. In evolutionary terms that’s nothing. The biggest changes to the way we live and work have happened in the last 5 generations. And the increased use of technology in the last generation has increased our workloads rather than alleviated it, as promised. The workplace is now the number one cause of stress, anxiety and depression.
The modern workplace is the equivalent of the prairie of 10,000 years ago. Except the stress is more constant and the threats are more complex. Most people spend a significant amount of time in a fight or flight state.
And, as someone who works with companies to come up with better ideas, that’s really bad news.[clickToTweet tweet=”The modern workplace is the equivalent of the prairie of 10,000 years ago. Except the stress is more constant.” quote=”The modern workplace is the equivalent of the prairie of 10,000 years ago. Except the stress is more constant.” theme=”style6″]
Stress is an idea-killer
Stress affects the way we think. If you’re running from a pack of wolves, you don’t start exploring options and assessing what’s a reasonable level of risk. You immediately choose a safe option and run towards it with all your energy.
The exact same happens in the workplace. When people are stressed, they limit their thinking to the proven and predictable. That’s why best practices, case studies and white papers are so popular. A number of studies show the impact that stress can have on quality of thought.
Way back in the 1990s – before the internet had properly kicked in,researchers examined the relationship between stress and creativity. Not surprisingly, they found that higher levels of stress led to lower levels of creativity.
A few years later in 2002, the Harvard Business Review published a study into the contents of over 9,000 daily diary entries from individuals working on creative tasks. Again, they discovered that the stress of time pressure led to less creative results. “When creativity is under the gun,” the authors wrote, “it usually ends up getting killed.”
In 2005, researchers used video clips to put subjects into a stressed or happy state. They showed some people the first half-hour of Saving Private Ryan and others the first half-hour of Shrek. Then they gave them a simple word association task, which is a typical measure of creative thinking ability. The people that watched the scene from Shrek performed 39 percent better than those who watched the stressful scene from Saving Private Ryan.
None of this is particularly surprising. But the knowledge clearly hasn’t made it up to the C-suite of many companies. As they strive to get more productivity out of their employees, they end up increasing stress levels and reducing the quality of thinking across their organisation. On top of that, they have a serious impact on their staff’s health and quality of life.
So let’s look at some things you can do to reduce your office-based stress and—as a by-product—come up with better ideas and live a more fulfilling life.
Escape your desk
Our behaviour is influenced by the environment we’re in. And our offices put us into a particular mindset. Just being in the corporate space causes us to adopt the politics, assumptions and behaviour that’s expected of us. And raises our stress levels accordingly. So make a point of getting out of the office if you need to think about things. Your desk is designed for doing, not thinking. It doesn’t tend to be where the best ideas come to you. A change of scenery gives you different perspectives and helps you think about things differently. A simple walk around the block can be all you need to unlock new thinking.
Take some exercise
Maybe even try running around the block a few times. Getting your heart rate up increases blood flow to the brain, reduces levels of stress hormones and releases feel-good endorphins. In short, it puts your brain in a better state for broader thinking. Plus regular exercise will increase your energy levels and boost your ability to focus. Again, think back to the life of a human 10,000 years ago. No one had invented the office cubicle yet, so humans spent more time on their feet, moving around and getting their blood pumping. You weren’t designed to spend so much time in an office chair, no matter how ergonomic it is.
Do something you enjoy
Take a break and do something that makes you feel good. That could be reading a book, drawing a picture or having a little dance somewhere that no one can see you. Regular moments like these snap you out of the habitual mental ruts of office thinking. They help you escape from the incessant hum of stress. And there’s another benefit. By occupying your conscious mind with something different, you move your business problems to the more powerful unconscious brain. Solid, unbroken, applied mental effort doesn’t give you the distance you often need to see a problem clearly. This isn’t slacking off, it’s a vital part of effective thinking.[clickToTweet tweet=”The constant drive to efficiency and utilisation is resulting in poisonous workplaces” quote=”The constant drive to efficiency and utilisation is resulting in poisonous workplaces” theme=”style6″]The constant drive to efficiency and utilisation is resulting in poisonous workplaces. Most people are absorbing these mental toxins; simply accepting that they’re part of life. They don’t need to be. A few simple steps like these can offer an antidote.
One thing’s for sure: ignoring workplace stress is a bad idea. Especially if, like me, you’re after good ideas.
Let’s make workplace stress history, just like the wolves at the start of this article.
This is an expanded version of an article that originally appeared on cxm.co.uk