Are you Practising Safe Stress?

Are you Practising Safe Stress?

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A new company has entered your market at the same time as a flood of cheaper, foreign-made, alternatives have hit the shelves. Existing clients are down-scaling their repeat orders, blaming the ubiquitous “financial crisis”, the Greeks and head-office budget cuts. You spent 2011 pulling the cost-cut lever and your margin is now in lonely single figures.

This is a nightmarish situation that many organisations find themselves in. Thank goodness you aren’t one of them, and don’t have to try and meet 2012 targets with 58% of your employees verging on exhaustion and suffering from debilitating sleep disorders, or having to worry about when the 37% who are experiencing unexplained chest pains will be off ill for extended periods, invoke your disability insurance or worse, drop dead. At least 49% of your staff aren’t demotivated and thank goodness you don’t have to try and tackle this bear with 51% of employees so disengaged they are merely ‘living for Fridays ‘. Or do you?

The reality

These figures were taken from surveys conducted between September 2011 and January 2012 across a variety of South African companies. The survey was compiled by several doctors and is aimed at raising awareness of some common physical, cognitive, behavioural and emotional symptoms of excess negative stress. The results have been startling; some more notable ones include:

  • 25% of employees surveyed report significant difficulties in being able to concentrate;
  • almost 27% feel a debilitating loss of meaning in their lives;
  • 21% struggle to control their anger and/or other emotional outbursts such as crying;
  • 26% complain of chronic abdominal upsets, a similar number have noticed a marked increase in the number of colds and coughs they are getting, and
  • 31% hobble through the day with generalised, unexplained aches and pains.

Is this the profile of a team you want to take into battle? Are you really sure you and your team aren’t just suffering in silence?

So why should you bother to read this column or pay any attention to what I have to say? I am nobody famous and don’t hold a medical degree. And therein lie my credentials – I am Mr White collar Average, trying to stay on this crazy urban treadmill without falling off; perhaps a bit like you?

A little over a year ago I did fall off that treadmill; literally burning out and slipping into a severe clinical depression – something I arrogantly and ignorantly didn’t think happened to people like me. I took this very personally, and in my search for answers I discovered that the effects of excess negative stress are so severe and impacting so many people that it is now being widely referred to as the ‘Black Death of the 21st Century’.

Perhaps that is somewhat melodramatic, but what isn’t overstated is the empirical evidence that proves the drop in productivity, creativity and morale, coupled with the increased operational and reputational risk and higher absenteeism, presenteeism  and staff turnover that go along with high levels of negative stress.

Those are hard, bottom-line issues that warrant proper and dutiful executive attention. In many organisations the consequences of stress are given about as much sincere attention as a supermodel’s handwriting.

By giving hard facts and simple, practical advice based on my own experience as well as the input of many medical professionals, I am trying to change this; empowering individuals to build personal resilience which organisations experience as improved productivity, creativity and morale.

Over the course of the next seven columns I will expand on the concept of ‘whole life balance’ as a powerful framework for combating excess negative stress and building personal (and hence organisational) resilience. The columns will build upon one another, providing practical tools, tips and techniques – leaving you with a personalised stress management plan which I urge you to share with your teams.

In the next online column we will assist you identify how stress is manifesting itself within you, as well as provide a practical tool for identifying key stressors in your life. Self-awareness is crucial before we can move on to explaining various strategies for dealing with those stressors and providing comprehensive and holistic advice on how to build your resilience.

I look forward to your comments and insights as we side-step the potholes down Burn-out Boulevard together.

Stress busting tip #1: Breathe deeply and slowly

Most of us pant like a dog when we breathe, inhaling shallowly and making our shoulders rise and fall. Taking deep, slow breaths simply allows more oxygen to enter our bodies, lowers our heart rate and helps us think more clearly. Put a hand on your tummy and concentrate on breathing slowly and deeply, counting to three in your head while your diaphragm/tummy expands. Hold that breath for the count of three.

Repeat five or six times. This can be done during especially harrowing meetings, prior to sales calls, taxi dodging on the M! or in bed at the end of the day.


Richard Hawkey
Richard Hawkey is an anti-stress evangelist, author, speaker and productivity consultant. Having suffered from a stress-related breakdown himself, he has since combined this general management and leadership experience with the profound lessons he learnt from mismanaging stress and subsequently burning out. He is the author of Life Less Lived and the founder of equilibriumsolutions – which has developed the first online stress management tool aimed at both employees an employers. Richard can be contacted at richard@equilibriumsolutions.co.za
  • EstherI

    It’s about time we all stopped kidding ourselves! Stress has this nasty habit of creeping up on us all, displaying signs that we explain away…I look forward to learning more about ‘practising safe stress’, building up somewhat of an immunity to the silent killer! Awesome article…I’m breathing deeply as I wait for the next one!

  • Estelle Estelle

    The “breathing thing” seems so obvious, but I realise it is a habit I need to work on. Thanks.