what a sheep can tell us about stress…

04/15/2012

by anne lueneburger

When we are stressed and under pressure it disrupts our ability to think clearly. This can lead to poor decision-making, as demonstrated by this entertaining clip from YouTube… . As with any herd animal (and humans are herd animals too), the sheep go on ‘autopilot’ in a crisis and assume that what the majority of others are doing is probably the right decision.

So, how does this relate to our working lives? Well, have you ever found yourself working longer and longer hours and thinking that it will help you deal with stress, only to find that, further down the line, you feel even more depleted and stressed? This is where a vicious cycle usually starts…

If you don’t want to become ‘headless’ like the sheep then, what works for many of our clients, is to find outlets for frustration, as these distractions allow us to deal with ‘stressors’ more effectively. You don’t necessarily have to punch a wall or start a hobby (in fact it is often sufficient to imagine those outlets and to get some relief from the pressures you are under this way).

It all starts with taking a moment to pause and to think about what that distraction could look like. In order for this distraction to be effective in the long run, research also shows that we need to make this an outlet that is positive for us. Here are some examples that you could consider:

Social support

We know from numerous research studies that other people are incredibly important to our personal wellbeing. They matter not only for our sense of general wellbeing, they also are key when it comes to feeling more engaged at work (if you have a ‘buddy’ in the office, research shows that you will be up to seven times more engaged than if you do not), and to us being more productive and less stressed. People with supportive spouses or friends also have longer life expectancies as they tend to have lower blood pressures and are up to five times less likely to have heart disease.

So ask yourself: who is in your professional and personal community, who is at your side, and how can you make sure you have social support built into your daily routine?

Predictability

The evidence is that the more predictable a stressor, the smaller our stress response. A historic example was when the city of London was bombed by the Germans during World War II. The bombings were like clockwork. In contrast the British suburbs experienced much more sporadic attacks resulting in a much higher level of stress due to the unpredictability. Evidencing this and it was found that overall there was a significant increase in ulcers during that time but, importantly, the suburban population who were dealing with the uncertainty of when the next bombing would happen, had a much higher incidence of ulcers.

Having predictability allows us to develop coping strategies more effectively. Applied to the work context, the more information we can gather about something that seems fairly new or uncertain, the more effectively will we be able to cope with a stressor. So, if elements of your work stress you out, what information can you get to give you a greater sense of certainty and ease?

Control

I have a fear of flying – for me it is the ultimate feeling of ‘being out of control’. And while I have tried a number of distraction techniques (watching a movie, playing video games, reading, talking with my neighbor: you name it), I have a hard time following the British philosophy of ‘Stay calm and collected’ when turbulence shakes the plane, and the urgent need to ‘Panic and freak out’ takes over! On the most recent flight which had terrible bumps I decided on another tactic: as there’s nothing I could do, I mentally committed myself to letting go of my need for control. It was an incredible relief. I consciously placed my trust into the hands of whoever was in the cockpit and fate and immediately felt less stressed.

Now, this strategy only really works if we know that there is no point in trying to take control. Applied to the work place, few of us will stress about a lack of control over what products our organization sells to consumers. After all, we have chosen to work there (similar to me deciding to get on to that plane) and we have the option to leave (and this realization alone, different from being on a plane, can reduce our stress levels as we are in control). The highest levels of stress come from a perceived lack of control over a process, such as the hours we are supposed to work, how supportive our leadership and peers are, or the reward structures in place.

In practice, to reduce stress, how could changing your perception help you in managing your stress level? What are ways you can increase your autonomy and help you feel more in control over your work environment? What levers do you have outside of work that can help you get a sense of control, such as exercising or breathing techniques?

So, next time things get stressful and you instinctively want to put your head down and follow the sheep in front of you, I encourage you to sit down and look at these three areas where you can manage your stress, and then start asking yourself some powerful questions – and powerful insights are bound to follow… (although hopefully not again and again around a small car.)

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