The sleeve of Work Without Stress, a new book by psychologist Derek Roger and CCL’s Nick Petrie, carries the warning, “This is not another stress management book.” Which is just as well because the authors fundamentally disagree with the thinking behind conventional stress management, which has been around for ages and which they say “has made no difference at all.”
Conventional wisdom says there is good and bad stress, whereas Roger and Petrie say that stress is never good and can and should be avoided to improve our performance at work and in life generally and due to its significant impact on health. It can shorten our lives.
So how do we avoid stress? The key according to these authors, based on three decades of research (which they review in the Appendix), is that stress is not an inherent part of life. Pressure on the other hand is a part of life. Pressure – the ‘demand to perform’ – may be intense but there is no inherent stress in it. The way to deal with pressure is to have resilience – the ability to be cope with the challenges life throws at us.
Pressure only brings on stress when we add another ingredient ‘rumination’ — focusing on past regrets and anxieties about the future: “I should have done this,” or “What if this happens?”
According to Roger and Petrie: Pressure + Rumination = Stress. And fortunately, we are not genetically programmed to ruminate. It is a habit and, as neuroscience research has shown, the brain has the capacity to adapt and move away from bad habits.
Rumination is not the same as ‘reflection’, which is the process of thinking over a problem to arrive at a solution, saying for example “What if we tried this approach? What else could we try?” Reflection is important and an essential leadership tool. But effective reflection can be hindered or shut down by rumination, when we say for example “What if we fail? What if I end up losing my job?”
To be resilient means monitoring how we react to events. The ubiquitous phrase ‘Shit happens!’ is unfinished say the authors. It should be ‘Shit happens; misery is optional’. Resilience is about reacting to unfolding events without adding emotional judgment or negativity and without adding the misery of stress.
Based on this well explained hypothesis, the book offers advice on how to cultivate resilience and gives a step-by-step guide to breaking the bad habits that lead to stress, backed up with some illuminating cases. Finally, the book shows leaders how to take these lessons into the workplace.
Across the spectrum of mental health, stress may not seem the most acute problem, but it is a widespread one that causes personal misery and leads to organizational under-performance. Recently a few business leaders, such as Virgin Money CEO Jayne-Anne Gadhia, have spoken openly about mental health – the problems they have faced and the challenge of dealing with mental health issues that still make many uncomfortable. The mental well-being of employees is a leadership issue and helping people learn to work without stress is an important starting point.
Work Without Stress: Building a Resilient Mindset for Lasting Success, Derek Roger and Nick Petrie, McGraw Hill Education, 2017, 978-1-259-64296-8