Business: Stress Victim or Stress Master?

How do you react to stress?

Posted Mar 10, 2011

Stress is a truly unpleasant, potentially harmful, and decidedly unavoidable part of life in the business world; it just comes with the territory of climbing the corporate ladder. Yet, whether stress interferes with or facilitates your efforts in that climb depends on how well you understand it, your attitude toward it, and the tools you have at your disposal to master the stress.

This post focuses on the first two contributors to your reaction to stress: your understanding and attitude. Despite its ever-presence in business life and the seemingly ubiquitous stress-management programs offered by so many companies, few business people have a thorough sense of what stress is, how it impacts them physically, psychologically, socially, and in their work efforts, and what they can actually do to ensure that it helps rather than hurts their professional and personal lives.

What is Stress?

Stress is a psychological, emotional, or physical reaction to internal or external demands that the are placed on people. Our stress reaction has been hard wired into us for as long as we have been humans to help us survive. Back when we were cavepeople, the increased heart rate, blood flow, and adrenaline gave us the strength to battle or run from (fight-or-flight response) hostile tribes and wild animals, and stay alive during periods of natural disaster and famine. The reality is though that we rarely face such stress-inducing hardships anymore. Because we aren't attacked by saber-toothed tigers very often these days, the stress we experience in modern times is due more to our perceptions of the experiences we have than the experiences themselves.

Nonetheless, stress still does threaten us at a psychological, social, and performance level.

Despite what many think, stress is actually an important and highly adaptive (to a point) response to the challenges that we face every day. Stress helps us respond physically by giving us more energy and endurance when confronted with the often exhausting schedules that businesspeople must keep. Stress also sharpens our thinking and focus for the intellectual demands we face in  the business world.

The demands we face and the stress we feel are usually quite manageable. But when the demands grow and they begin to exceed our capabilities and resources to deal with them effectively, then the stress becomes debilitating. Think of the demands that you face in the business world. Internal demands can include the perceptions you hold about your abilities, the goals and expectations you have, and the worries and fears you feel. External demands can consist of time pressure, financial concerns, work conflict, and excessive workloads.

Stress in Perspective

Stress has become so woven into the fabric of the corporate world that many people have lost sight of what it is and what it is not. Stress is a normal part of any environment that is driven by high goals and expectations and, as I noted above, it is usually more helpful than harmful. A mistake that many people make is the confuse hard work with stress. There are two things about hard work that can cause this confusion: hard work is hard and its work. And I think that many business people like to talk about how stressed they are because it makes them feel heroic when, in fact, what they are doing is just the job they signed on for.

Stress goes beyond normal life and hard work when you no longer have the ability to manage it effectively. We all have a threshold we reach when stress turns harmful. When we cross that line, several red flags occur:

  • We feel psychologically overwhelmed and emotionally vulnerable;
  • The quality of our work declines;
  • Our health deteriorates;
  • We lose our enjoyment and motivation in our work;
  • Our general quality of life decreases.

When you can check off each of those five items, then you can state with confidence (or trepidation) that you are experiencing debilitating stress.

Causes of Stress

The causes of harmful stress at work are myriad. At the same time, there are some causes that I have found most evidence in the workplace:

  • Psychological: perfectionism, fear of failure, lack of control, and poor time management and organizational skills.
  • Personal: poor physical health, financial problems, and non-work issues (e.g., bad marriage).
  • Work-related: job insecurity, insufficient knowledge, skills, resources, and resources, and personality conflicts.

Symptoms of Stress

When you've crossed that line past hard work, the stress will cause you to experience a wide variety of symptoms. Because of the direct attack on your mind and body that harmful stress places on you, your stress will manifest itself in a variety of ways:

  • Physical: frequent illness due to immune system failure; physical complaints, including headaches and stomach aches; sleeping problems, either insomnia or frequent waking; and changes in appetite, either loss of increased appetite.
  • Cognitive: lost confidence, excessive negativity or self-criticism, unrealistic expectations.
  • Emotional: moodiness, sadness, anger, or inappropriate or excessive expression of emotions.
  • Social: withdrawal or conflict.
  • Performance: loss of motivation, performance anxiety, lack of enjoyment, and decline in productivity.

Types of Stress

Stress can either facilitate or interfere with your work performance based partly on a fundamental distinction in how you perceive the demands placed on you. Specifically, do you interpret the stress as being a threat or a challenge?

Threat stress is usually connected to self-esteem. The demands threaten your sense of competence and value personally and professionally. The demands are not only uncomfortable - all stress is to some degree - but also burdensome. The stress is persistent and often overwhelming. You also feel that you have little control over the stress. And it ultimately leads to either physical or psychological breakdown.

In contrast, challenge stress is seen as affirming your self-esteem; your perception of your ability to handle the stress is actually validating of your competence and value. The stress inspires and motivates you to see the demands as challenges to overcome rather than threats to avoid. Not surprisingly, this mindset reinforces your belief that you have control over the demands and actually energizes you to confront the demands directly. Ultimately, challenge stress raises the level of your "game," enabling you to be more productive.

Approach to Stress

You should think about stress much as you would the thermometer and thermostat in your home. You know when the temperature in your house is comfortable and when it gets too hot. In the latter case, you adjust the thermostat to a more comfortable level. The same applies to your stress level. You know when your stress is at a comfortable level. You also need to recognize when your stress level is too high. When that happens, you need to adjust your stress thermostat, that is, reduce the demands that are causing the stress or increase your resources to mitigate those demands, in both cases, your stress lessens.

You have three choices in how you perceive your ability to respond to the stress you experience:

  • Stress victim: suffer from stress, controlled by the stress, quality of work deteriorates, depression and/or anxiety is evident, escape motivation.
  • Stress manager: respond to stress, but most often reactively so there is little sense of control, get by, hang on, ultimate breakdown.
  • Stress master: positive attitude toward stress, prepare for stress proactively, feel in control of stress, accept stress, thrive on stress, know when to say when.

Your goal, of course, is to become a stress master. In my next business-related posts, I'll introduce you to how you can lay the foundation for stress mastery and the specific attitudes and strategies you need to become a stress master.