What is stress and how can we avoid it?

Kathryn Kernick, Regional Director UK & IR at Center for Creative Leadership, talks about what stress is, and how it can be best avoided in the workplace

Kathryn Kernick was speaking to HRD Connect ahead of her session at HRD Summit 2017.

What are the biggest myths about stress?

I think one of the myths is that stress is something you must learn to live with, our research shows that is absolutely, not the case. The second big myth would be that stress is good for us and again it’s not so, there is no kind of ‘good stress’, if you like – that’s what our research is telling us.

What is the smarter way to think about stress?

I think we need a shift in the paradigm of what we think stress is and instead of focusing on stress and how to manage it, we need to focus on resilience so you can see what stress is and choose not to become involved with it. To do that, we need to understand the difference between stress and pressure and not turn pressure into stress.

What turns pressure into stress?

Pressure is not stress, it’s simply the demand to perform. It’s about that external demand and environment and there is no stress inherent in it at all. Most people working in organisations today experience pressure but pressure doesn’t equal stress.

If I take it a step further, pressure becomes stress in something we call rumination, which is essentially dwelling on emotional upsets or repeatedly thinking about events in the past or in the future attaching a negative emotion to them. What we found is that people who don’t ruminate don’t get stressed so the good news is that rumination is not genetic in any way and it’s a habit we can all change.

What we would say from our research and through working with leaders as we have been doing for the last 40 plus years, is that avoiding rumination is the fundamental key to developing resilience.

How can we avoid stress?

There are four ways really.

The first step to avoid rumination is about waking up. We all spend a tremendous amount of time in what can be described as waking sleep. Waking sleep is not intentional, it’s when our minds wonders into the past or the future. Waking sleep can be transformed into rumination when negative emotion is added. So, waking up is essentially about being in the present moment and attending to what you’re facing in the here and there.

Second, once you are awake tension becomes available for you to use intentionally. What you’re aiming to do is turn rumination into reflection, and reflecting in a positive and neutral way rather than essentially making yourself stressed.

Third, having woken up and regained attention, the next step is to become detached. Detachment in this context means being able to maintain perspective and defusing potential challenges by getting a sense of perspective. This is stepping back from a situation rather than becoming disengaged or not caring, it’s quite the opposite as you can only reflect once you’ve become detached.

The final way to avoid rumination is what we would describe as letting go. It’s about letting things go without attaching to anything. Tasks typically come wrapped in emotion and what you need to do is let go of that wrapping, essentially letting go of that negative emotion.

To recap, we need to wake up, then control our attention, become detached and we then need to let go. And then we’ll be well on our way to being less stressed and more resilient.

How do people act when they are skilled in resilience?

Essentially, they understand the difference between pressure and stress, and they accept that pressure is natural part of having a good job. Understanding that pressure is there, it’s natural and we’re all going to experience that but, stress is chosen. It’s really about a fundamental mindset for a lot of people and it’s the realisation that they have a choice and not to be a victim of stress. That’s an empowering understanding. For leaders, it’s about focussing on what they and their team control and have the influence over, not to ruminate around those things where they have no control.

What are the actions of people who are not skilled in resilience?

So really, it’s individuals who are constantly thinking about the ‘what if’s’ and ‘if only’s’ without even realising it. It’s not even realising that that’s going on in your head so those individuals imagine events to be much more bigger and more consequential than they really are. And, for example they ruminate about other people, what other people might be thinking of them as a leader. If a leader is not resilient this can have a significant impact on them as an individual but also on their team. Habitual rumination in leaders will significantly compromise a team’s productivity and happiness so that is why they must pay particular attention to avoiding it.

And finally, what is the role of leaders in helping their people avoid stress?

Stress can be no more than rumination but as leaders behave negatively and start to blame the team members and other individuals, that pressure starts to become transformed into stress for others around you as well.

Resilience is a challenge, as we’re all experiencing extremely high levels of stress in the workplace. Organisations are trying to do more with less and employees workloads are getting higher, with no end in sight. It’s not going to go away, so actually enabling people to understand that stress is chosen and that pressure will always be there will hopefully make a happier environment but also a more productive environment for leaders and individuals in an organisation.

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A frustrated-looking woman leans on her hand as she holds a bill in an envelope, which has a red stamp reading: PAST DUE.