Work is the primary source of stress in our modern society. Studies conducted on workplace stress by the American Institute of Stress have shown that 80% of workers feel stress on the job, nearly half say they need help in learning how to manage stress, and 42% say their coworkers need such help. Moreover, the pent-up frustration, irritation and even anger that stress creates are significant with 14% of respondents had felt like striking a co-worker in the past year but didn’t. 25% have felt like screaming or shouting because of job stress, 10% are concerned about an individual at work they fear could become violent, and 9% are aware of an assault or violent act in their workplace, and 18% had experienced some threat or verbal intimidation in the past year.

Often, we talk about stress in one-dimensional context, i.e., fight or flight. However, is this the only response humans have to stress? In the 1930s, physiologist Walter Cannon proposed that stress trigger two primordial reactions aggression out or running away. The “fight or flight” concept has dominated our approach to and conversation about stress.

However, fight or flight is only part of the picture. In 1990’s research conducted by Shelley Taylor and her team the University of California, Los Angeles described how stress could elicit a different behavioral response that they named “tend and befriend.”

However, fight or flight is only part of the picture. In 1990’s research conducted by Shelley Taylor and her team the University of California, Los Angeles described how stress could elicit a different behavioral response that they named “tend and befriend.”  This response was the main one demonstrated by females. Before their work, most studies on stress had been conducted with men, in fact, only 17% of stress-related research had involved women. Traditionally caring for offspring was an exclusively female role and females would risk more regarding reproductive success if injured or separated from their group. Females have since Stone Age times formed stable alliances, possibly reflecting an adaptive tendency to seek out support in times of stress. Taylor and her co-workers found that compared to males, females’ aggression and fear-related behaviors are less intense and more “cerebral and that while both sexes share the capacity for fight or flight, females seem to use it less. However, both men and women are capable of being trusting, generous and willing to protect others. How does that happen?

The research points to the role of oxytocin ‘the cuddle’ hormone and endorphins in the ‘tend and befriend’ response. Social support is associated with increases in levels of a hormone called oxytocin, this leads to a decrease in anxiety levels and stimulates the calming down reactions. Oxytocin helps balance out other stress hormones associated with the fight-or-flight response such as enhanced arousal, focused attention, and aggression.

Stress often leads to withdrawal, difficulty with interpersonal relationships at work and home and can lead to feelings of isolation and loneliness. Oxytocin also stimulates our desire to seek out the social connection. Stressed people who have social support receive an oxytocin boost. Moreover, in turn, helps them feel less anxious, more able to cope and more drawn to other people. Many people experiencing stress at work do not have adequate forms of social support. They may not feel comfortable asking for support from others. They may withdraw from others, further decreasing the amount of support available. This social support deficit is a factor in further stress problems, and a self-fulfilling prophecy.

So, what strategies can be put in workplaces to create an environment where ‘tend and befriend’ becomes the standard response of leadership and co-workers in times of stress? Training in mindfulness and compassion can help to change the corporate culture as they help leaders and employees to become more resilient and to cope better under stress. Here are my top tips for bringing more compassion into the workplace and in turn cultivating a ‘tend and befriend’ culture.

  1. Compassion starts with self-compassion. A key pillar of any workplace mindfulness training should include loving-kindness practices. Loving Kindness is an helps us let go of some of the defenses we have built to protect ourselves and opens us to experience more connection not with ourselves but with others. It helps to develop new habits and ways of relating with ourselves and others with generosity and appreciation. All the essential elements of ‘tend and befriend.’
  2. Encouraging leaders to engage in compassionate actions. When someone is engaging in a kind way or helps someone else, we get the warm fuzzy feeling, which Psychologist Jonathan Haidt has termed this state of being “elevation.” In the workplace, when leaders are polite, respectful, sensitive, or willing to make sacrifices for their teams, their employees experience elevation. Moreover, that, in turn, leads to feelings of loyalty and commitment to that leader. Elevation seems to create a kinder culture as employees of compassionate leaders are in turn more likely to be helpful and friendly toward each other.
  3. More authenticity and open communication with a greater emphasis on active listening skills. This can be as simple as excluding smartphones and computers from meeting so that people attend to what has been said. Attending includes eye contact, facial expression, body posture, gestures, distractions, vocal variety and vocal (but non-verbal expressions). The other form of listening is reflecting and has two skill sets. One is repetition, and the other is paraphrasing. Paraphrasing is the more powerful way and lets the speaker know that you truly understand his or her core message. It means listening to feelings. Deep listening takes even further It means not reacting but merely listening, without the need to formulate a response. Deep listening establishes communication and understanding between people in a way that is contemplative and caring.
Tend and befriend is indeed another way to manage stress. Click To Tweet

When leaders promote ‘tend and befriend behavior rather than a culture of stress driven by fight or flight, they may see a happier workplace and an improved bottom line. Tend and befriend is indeed another way to manage stress. It can make us social, brave and smart. It can drive leaders and their employees to be more trusting and willing to protect others in response to challenging situations.

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Dr. Clarissa Hughes is the CEO and founder of The Little Breathing Space based in Göteborg, Sweden. She has a passion for working with busy business people through tailored mindfulness coaching to find their optimal stress levels and to be able to better navigate the demands of modern life skillfully. Her coaching empowers them to develop a higher capacity to feel clear-headed, confident and thriving in a life that reflects their purpose. Clarissa has been a senior manager in some of the world’s largest multinationals in the UK and Asia-Pacific for over 28 years. She suffered a burnout due to stress and found her way back to a calmer, more connected life through mindfulness. Clarissa is an accredited Breathworks Mindfulness practitioner, iRest Yoga Nidra teacher has experience and an academic background in human behaviour. She is a keynote speaker at leadership conferences, hosts the podcast ‘A Little Breathing Space’ and regularly appears in articles, podcasts, and radio interviews internationally talking all things mindfulness. Clarissa believes that mindfulness is more than daily meditation - it is a way of living with compassionate self-awareness so that we can truly thrive.

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Bharat Mathur
EDITOR

Thanks a lot, Dr. Clarissa, for this eye-opening article that gives some very valid pointers to handle stress and other stressed-out individuals. Indeed “tend and befriend” can be one of the most important techniques in this effort as it leads to an active social engagement. I wish we could see more of such valuable guidance out in the open for all of us to emulate in our daily lives.

Kathleen O'keefe- Kanavos
Member

Stress is a killer and should be taken seriously. Since we spend so much time in the workplace it stands to reason that work would be the main component of our stress. But isn’t it interesting how women have risen to the top as the person to tend and friend? I am sharing your article on my social media pages.

Larry Tyler
EDITOR

Thank you Dr Clarissa I love your article. I use to work for a big box store and we had a DM that was so bad that the staff would get physically sick when he came to the store. It got so bad that I reached out to other Managers and found that this was happening in 23 stores in our district. We all tried to talk to him but to no success. Eventually we had to turn to an Attorney and in the end he got let go. You figure 23 stores with an average of 50 employees to a store. He wrecked the lives of 1,150 people for two years before he was let go. In the end most of the Manger left the company with two years. I make a point to give my staff a voice and empower them to be movers and change agents. Success in business starts with the people that open the front door not from someone sitting in a Manhattan office that never goes into a store.