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... how many of us actually understand what stress is, or how it is caused, or what can be done about it?


It is estimated that something like 40 million days are lost in any one year through stress-related illness, and most employees, when asked, will say that there is a certain amount of stress within their own job. But how many of us actually understand what stress is, or how it is caused, or what can be done about it? Most of us would hazard a guess, and the usual phrases of “pressures of work” or “tight deadlines” would be typical responses. Yet a certain amount of stress can be a very positive influence – something that drives us on, even forces us into action that we did not feel possible. It is only when our ability to cope is strained or exceeded that the negative aspects of stress (better described as distress) take over.

Many stress management programmes concentrate on physical fitness and relaxation, and certainly these play a part in the management of stress. Fitness and relaxation effectively increase our tolerance threshold so that we are better able to deal with the everyday stressors in our lives and our jobs. Another solution is to reduce stressors themselves, but often we have little control over the things that irritate and annoy us. The important point in stress management – and one that some enlightened employers already recognise – is to ensure that employees understand stress and the part that they themselves can play in reducing it.

Consider this. It is generally accepted that to have a minor accident in a car would be an unpleasant experience, and most people would expect this to cause them some stress, at least in the short term, and yet the effect on two people involved in the incident varies dramatically. One person might ‘go to pieces’, while another stays calm and deals with the incident in a relatively relaxed manner. So, why does one person react so differently from another? Certainly, physical fitness alone cannot account for the wide variation in the responses. And they were both exposed to the same stressor, so it was not the incident alone that caused the distress. The real key to stress management is in understanding that the outcome (in this example, the level of distress caused by the incident) is determined by the event plus the response to the event.

In stress management training, I use the simple equation: E + R = O, or, The Event + The Response = The Outcome.

In our example, it is possible (in fact highly likely) that one person in his or her response would concentrate on the negative aspects of the situation, e.g. “What might have happened if I’d been going faster?” or “This is going to cost a fortune!” or “How am I going to explain this to my boss?” whereas, the other person would keep things more in perspective and consider the positive aspects: “No one is hurt!” or “I’m fully insured” or “That’s the first accident I’ve had in ten years’ driving.”

Of course, this oversimplifies the concept of stress management, and many factors influence our ability to cope. Nevertheless, think about the occasions when we get angry, frustrated or anxious. What part do we play in the process? Is it really that bad? Are we really thinking this through logically? Does it really matter that much? Or have we maybe just slightly over-reacted? The basic problem is that our response is often, understandably, emotional – anger, frustration and anxiety are the most common responses to events perceived as negative – and when we are emotional we are rarely logical. Often it takes only a little time, or talking the problem through with someone with a more dispassionate viewpoint, to bring the thought processes back to normal. In more extreme cases, it requires counselling skills to make a person see that his or her thinking is in some way distorted.

Stress has been called ‘the modern epidemic’, and there is no doubt that stress is on the increase. But much of this increase is due to the tendency to leave it to others to sort out. People often complain to colleagues about difficulties, but do nothing to resolve the problem. For our own part, we can reduce the negative impact of stress by continually striving to ensure that our responses (and therefore the outcome) are in reasonable proportion to the event or difficulty we are responding to. Think about it. If we do nothing, we can expect no change in the situation. Sometimes, ‘doing something’ is simply amending our response. Sometimes it is simply accepting the situation as it stands. Stress Management is a complex subject, but one simple fact applies in most situations: “Constant moaning with no attempt to change things has no effect in the long run and merely induces a general sense of pessimism, hopelessness and helplessness”. Food for thought!