It's a funny old thing, stress. We have talked about it for many years but have little concept of it before the 1930s. Before then, even the stress of battle was regarded as some sort of moral inadequacy and we would readily file young men against walls and shoot them, rather than admit there are limits to human endurance.
We live in an age of plenty. We have technologies that service and offer instant access to the globe. Opportunities exist in abundance and our choices as individuals and consumers borne through improved production processes, better health care and less rigid psychological mindsets have never been greater.
There is, however, a paradox in choice. Research suggests that too many options may actually result in inertia. One becomes overloaded with choice and one tends to do less, rather than more with what is available. When Henry Ford brought out his famous model T, stating "you can have any colour as long as it's black" as the maxim, there was stress reduction in his marketing about which we would complain these days.
Stressful days are now our lifestyle. The ubiquitous Smartphone gives us so much convenience, yet gives us few spaces to be alone, uninterrupted by other people’s thoughts and needs. Sometimes it's good just not to be contactable, however unpopular that is with business partners, employers, family members etc. Being available on a multimedia basis, in person, by phone, by email and now by social media, is all very nice but it offers very little space and privacy for a sense of self and more importantly an opportunity to reflect upon life. Thought streams are jammed by multiple inputs from others as they compete for time and our endeavour. Far from being the centre of the crowd, this can often lead to a sense of lost self, of being in the drudgery of having to respond to others’ communications.
We get home, what do we do? Statistics suggest that at least 40% of the population sit in front of the television for three hours plus per night, many channel-hopping across the hundreds of options that are now available through satellite television, internet-based television and replays by the terrestrial channels on iPlayer and similar. It is choice, yes, but it is also innately stressful.
All too frequently I see people referred to me for stress or time management when in fact their time has been bombarded by the organisation, under their expectations, to the point where they lose their sense of self-motivation, self-autonomy and an ability to have time to think. These people are then regarded as non-performing and are blamed, on an individual pathology basis, as simply "not coping". The long hours culture that has dominated these times of recession, where people have been insecure for their work in a business, has not helped. In times of low growth or no growth, there is a natural tendency for people to do more, not less, even if it is unproductive. The result is burnout, stress and, in many cases, depression that can run right through an organisation.
So, what can an organisation do to counter the stress at a time when productivity and communication levels have been subjected to higher expectations? It is important to take time to reflect. Indeed most companies fall apart due to their lack of thinking processes, rather than anything to do with that industriousness. Time to reflect gives an opportunity to reiterate actions in the mind and see if these are productive and purposeful and the best that can be identified in the circumstances. All too many managers equate decisiveness with effectiveness where in fact it can lead to rapid decisions that are made that are highly inappropriate to the circumstances. We should err on the side of accurate rather than quick.
That requires reflection of processes, time to think, time to block out the multiple bombardments of performance statistics and deadlines, and actually allowing people to use what they use best, their brains, their memories, their experiences, to actually bring to the decision-making table effective, rather than just gratuitous action.
Second, we can create the opportunity for people to sit down and talk to one another face to face away from electronic communication with sufficient time to reconnect with one another and themselves in a meaningful way. I'm not promoting group hugs here, but they would certainly be better than an acidic email.
Finally, it is for the people at the top to recognise that they need to care for themselves. This does not necessarily mean an afternoon on the golf course, although it can. It often means finding support and guidance through cultures, mentors or trusted advisors that can allow them their own reflective processes and so begin the culture of humane, sensible and high-quality reflective practice in their organisations.
At the very least, stress would reduce and there would be no visible reduction in productivity. I would assert, the bottom line will improve radically in those organisations which take this route.
I have met people who become anxious and agitated when one switches off electronic media, including the television and the internet and just have to sit and think and talk and read a book and do all of those things which will allow us to reclaim a humanity in a world where technology and business expediencies do not support our human processes.
You may say I’m a dreamer, but I am not the only one…….(sorry John).