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The Big Stress Lie

Work is not stressful...

We’ve all heard about the person whose life is made a misery by a bullying boss. Or whose 80-hour working week is incredibly demanding. Or whose life has been beset by tragic events. The world certainly causes stress for those people.

But that is unlikely to be you.

Because most people, that’s you and I, do not have life situations that cause stress. Yet, at any point in time, around one in five of us will claim we are suffering from stress. But, when the supposed stressors disappear, the stress still hangs around.

Has this happened to you?

Let me debunk a common myth about stress.

For most people most of the time, there is no such thing as job stress. Not in the way people think, anyway. Bear with me. Here’s my research that supports that conclusion.

I did a study looking at people doing identical jobs. That way I could be sure that any difference I found in their stress levels was due to other things. Of course, many jobs look the same but can be quite different. I ended up measuring women who worked on a supermarket’s checkout tills. They filled out work profile questionnaires giving their perceptions of the job: the pace of work, demands of their supervisor, amount of variety, job ambiguity, role conflict etc.

I was amazed by the results. On every "objective" work dimension there were some women who scored it at the minimum level, while others scored it at the highest. For example, some rated the pace of work as very high, others as very low.

These women all did the same job in the same large supermarket.

I then compared their scores with workers in all kinds of different roles at an investment bank from the lowliest job to the highest work grade, in different parts of the world. The differences in scores between the checkout women were as large as the differences between all of the jobs in the bank. Sometimes even larger. Why is this remarkable?

It is remarkable because psychologists and the public-at-large believe in the concept of work stress. They confuse ‘demand’ with stress, whereas demand can be good for us. This confusion leads them to blame the workplace for the problems that actually reside within people.

People differ in their response to demand. Far more than the differences between the demands of different jobs. That’s why there’s no sense in changing the workplace to reduce stress, because that’s not the cause of the problem. It is the differences in people’s response to demand that needs tackling.

But how?

Back to the checkout women.

In the research I also measured the women’s anxiety and depression, as well as their behavioral flexibility. Those who thought their jobs were more stressful, and had higher anxiety and depression scores, were far less behaviorally flexible. They were stressed because they were only using a small proportion of their behavioural repertoire (see my book Flex: Do Something Different – using the other 9/10ths of your personality for how we tackle this).

So what’s the answer? Change the person not the job?

Yes, simply put, in studies where we have increased behavioral flexibility, job stress has gone down, even though the job has not been altered at all. Indeed, one overriding result of our projects to increase behavioral flexibility using the Do Something Different techniques, in communities and organisations alike, is that it reduces stress, anxiety and depression. It makes life better and more positive. People become better equipped to deal with the world. As a result, they perceive it as a less difficult place.

Making yourself more flexible in the behaviors you use can change the world.