With stress being one of the greatest sources of misery, ineffectiveness, and disengagement at work, it is increasingly essential for people to have skills and tools for managing the inevitable challenges that they face at work. It turns out that mindfulness is an ideal strategy for channelling the experiences and circumstances that typically cause stress at work into greater motivation, innovative zeal, and productivity—and it turns out there is ample science to back this claim.
We live in stressful times, work is more stressful. We are working harder than we have before. Work is more complicated. The demands of leadership, the office and organizations are harder. But thankfully, we have ready-made tools to help us handle stress. They fall under this rubric of mindfulness, which is really how we handle the stresses and contents of the day in a non-judgemental way, calm way, insightful way. And we can cultivate this skill with the skills of resilience, which is just how you develop capacities to take on and adapt to the stresses of your day.
For many, the thought “it’s called work for a reason” is a familiar explanation—one that justifies and validates frequent distress and discontent at work. In fact, stress is a crucial, evolutionary function that helps humans survive immediate threats of bodily harm. Without stress, we would be dinner, or roadkill. However, because humans are also very clever and regularly think in terms of the past, the future, or other kinds of threats like losing status, we can also escalate and extend stress to a whole new level: chronic stress.
Stress is the experience that happens when the demands in front of us outweigh the resources and reserves we have at our disposal. From an evolutionary perspective, stress is considered the body’s innate capacity to self-preserve by staving off harm. During stress the body activates the branches of the autonomic nervous system, primarily the sympathetic nervous system, often referred to as the fight or flight system. But in some cases where freezing is the most promising way to stay alive, stress can also dynamically activate the parasympathetic nervous system. When we encounter threat or danger, the body responds with stress to avoid, escape from and fight off harm.
A sympathetic stress response activates the hypothalamic pituitary axis, a sort of hub and portal between the brain and the circulatory system that supports hormonal influence on our experiences and behaviours. During stress the HPA axis releases stress hormones, like adrenaline, cortisol and norepinephrine which raises your heart rate and blood pressure, redirect blood flow towards the big muscles and away from non-essential organs in the gastrointestinal tract. It makes blood clots more easily and increases blood sugar, all of this putting us in a better position to survive. The HPA stress response also puts the immune system into high gear, ready to fight off infection with inflammation in case there is tissue damage.
Acute stress also shifts the way we perceive and process information in our brains. Neural responses are directed towards processing threat. Sensation, perception and information processing and memory are biased towards self-preservation, preparing for motor action and taking a global, spatially-oriented perspective on things. Under stress, we often miss the finer details that are probably not essential to escaping from the saber-toothed tiger but are usually important to getting things right at work. The stress response also makes our sweat smellier. While scientists don’t have a systematic explanation for this, studies have shown that people in an audience are more sceptical about the content of presentations by speakers who smell stress-sweaty.
So how does stress, which seems so helpful for surviving real threats, turn into something so problematic to human health and well-being? Most scientists think that it comes down to a mismatch between the kinds of challenges and threat that we encounter today in our contemporary work lives and the kind of threats and challenges that our bodies evolved to handle. We can thank our stress response for helping us dart out of the path of an oncoming car, but that stress comes on quick and subsides soon after we know we are safe. In contrast today’s chronic stress is not typically not about an immediate physical threat. It’s often about something that has already happened, something coming up in the future, or about an outcome that has implications for our reputation or social status, not life or death. Stanford Professor Robert Sapolsky wrote about this in his 1994 book, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, and again in his recent book, Behave.
Today’s chronic stress response endures over the course of weeks, months and years. And because the body still gets the same turn on stress command, the body ends up in a state of sympathetic overdrive. This means that the sympathetic nervous system remains steadily activated, pulsing an enduring presence of stress hormones into the blood stream, which keeps blood pressure high, builds up atherosclerotic plaques in blood vessels and puts people in greater risk of cardiovascular disease. Overtime chronic stress weakens the immune response , increasing our risk of infections and diseases. And has been shown to make cancer spread faster. Chronic stress is also associated with premature cellular aging, ulcers, loss of sleep, diabetes, obesity and other significant health problems. Modern day chronic stress also strains on social relationships, a decreasing and closeness of long-term bonds. Chronic stress causes memory loss and impairs intellectual function, and has even been tied to cell death in the hippocampus, the brain structure that’s most important for encoding memories.
Finally at a subjective level, chronic stress is unpleasant. It interferes with happiness in life and puts us at risk for psychological disorders. In thinking about stress in the context of work, some stress is inevitable and okay. We spend upwards of 50% of our waking hours doing things that have consequences, are time-sensitive and can be wrong, disliked or epically fail. Getting fired can lead to dire consequences. The point is not to demonize or try to eliminate stress from work altogether just because we are not typically fighting predators around the water cooler. While the body does have a stress system. The body also has systems for undoing and recovering from stress. And interestingly. These systems are sensitive to social input. The body has resilience. And just as we can stretch stress out into a chronic problem, we can also strengthen skills of resilience to get better at undoing stress in a timely and constructive fashion at work.
We all vary in the kinds of work we do and the ways we have learned to work with stressors at work. On average, however, there is ample evidence that too much stress at work is a huge problem for individuals, organizations, and larger communities (e.g., public health).