It doesn’t matter what you think about work-related stress, it’s all about how others feel… During Mental Health Awareness Week, there’s a lot of discussion and press coverage about the subject. It prompted me to dig out this old story. I’m not sure where I came across it first but it’s one that serves as a great reminder that regardless of our views on the merits of happier workplaces… there is another side to the story of how people feel at work.
Enjoy — and feel free to comment or share your experiences/stories!
A Harvard Professor of Psychology walked around a room full of students while teaching about stress management. To begin his lecture he grabbed a glass of water and raised it above his head as if he was going to propose a toast, and instantly everyone expected they’d be asked if the glass was half empty or half full as part of the lesson. Instead though, with a smile on his face, the professor asked:
“How heavy is this glass of water?”
Students called out answers “6 ounces” and “10 ounces” but he shrugged them off. He replied, “The actual weight doesn’t matter. What really matters is how long I’ve been holding it. If I hold it for just a minute it feels very light. If I hold it for an hour, I’ll have an ache in my arm. If I hold it for a whole day, my arm will feel numb and paralysed. Any longer than that and I will be very tempted to give up and drop it. In each case, the weight of the glass doesn’t change, but the longer I hold it, the heavier it becomes.”
The students were all blown away by the simplicity yet truth of this lesson.
However, the professor continued, “The stresses and worries in life are like this glass of water. Carry them for only a short while and they’re manageable. Worry about them a bit longer and they begin to hurt. And if we think about them all day long, or longer, we can begin to feel paralysed and hopeless — incapable of concentrating or focusing on anything else.”
The professor reminded his students “It’s important to remember to let go of your stresses whenever possible. As early in the evening as you can, put all your burdens down. Don’t carry them through the evening and into the night. This can certainly be easier said than done in some cases, but in many cases, it’s actually quite easy if we’re mindful about it”
That’s good advice for all of us about letting go where possible.
At work though, we can do more… almost all work is a team sport after all.
When we think about our colleagues feeling stressed, we can easily default to an assumption about the weight of the glass they’re holding rather than considering how long they’ve been holding it. In other words, the source of the stress isn’t the place to start a conversation about it. The place to start is their response, how that person is feeling, and from there we might find a way forward. In many cases, simply caring enough to take an interest lets others know that they’re supported, cared for and valued, and that can be enough to cause the stress hormones to recede.
Employers, managers and anyone with responsibility for others at work…
Stress is our body responding to a perceived threat, challenge or demand. It’s highly personal, what is a trigger of stress for you might be different for me, as will be both the severity and duration of that response.
In the right circumstances, stress is helpful — that adrenaline rush ahead of that big pitch or presentation is your body sharpening the senses, focusing the brain, diverting energy to just what’s needed for the situation so that we can perform at our best.
It is designed to do just that and then to return to normal.
Stress becomes problematic when we’re constantly exposed to it. The more frequently it’s triggered, the easier it becomes to trigger it next time and the harder it can be to switch off. The effect of constant exposure on us as individuals can be devastating in physical and mental terms with implications for almost every system in our bodies.
No employer would willingly create the conditions where this was either an acceptable or common outcome of working at their company.
Yet the issue of work-related stress and associated mental health conditions is widespread and getting worse, costing UK businesses alone between £33bn-£42bn per annum, accounting for 15.4m lost working days and it is now the leading cause of all sickness absence.
Something isn’t quite right.
As we’ve discovered over the past couple of years, understanding how people feel is something many companies feel able to put to one side as a ‘nice to know’ — particularly with an eye towards how happy people are. Flipping the coin to the question of understanding whether people are stressed, anxious, or overwhelmed… and perhaps it starts to feel a little less ‘nice to know’.
There are some things that you can never understand by asking people about them from time to time … if you really want to know how your people are doing, ask often.