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Stress Destroys Lives (and we can take action to help cope)

A Reuters report released the other day included the following descriptions of the lives of those working in Banking in the City of London:

  • Dwindling job security, heavier workloads, regulatory upheaval and the poor public image of banking are taking a toll on the mental health of Britain’s bank workers:
  • They’re working longer hours doing two to three jobs, under greater pressure. Something has to give.”
  • A high profile example was senior banker, Hector Sants, head of Compliance at Barclays, was signed off on medical grounds for stress;
  • “Work related stress is a very serious and increasing problem.”
  • HSBC said it had a number of initiatives to reduce stress related illnesses.
  •  Suicide mortality rates in the City have consistently outnumbered any other London borough since 2009,

Banking isn’t the only industry where employees have been under increasing stress, much of the financial services industry has followed this trend, due to downsizing, regulatory pressures etc.  In addition, other industries outside financial services have experienced stress related pressures.

There is no doubt that long term stress kills, through increasing the risk of heart disease, cancer and many neurological conditions, including Alzheimers.

We have also seen how work related stress have seriously impacted the health of countries. Japan is the prime example. Last year the New York Post, under the headline, “ Japan plans to stop employees from working themselves to death”, included the following paragraph:

“Working literally to death is a tragedy so common that a term has been coined for it: “karoshi.” The government estimates there are 200 karoshi deaths a year from causes such as heart attacks or cerebral hemorrhaging after working long hours. It’s aware of many cases of mental depression and suicides from overwork not counted as karoshi.”

Society, companies and individuals must do more to deal with this growing scourge of the ‘so called’ developed societies. This needs to happen at both the corporate and individual level.  Macho cultures, as typically prevalent in the City banks and some other financial institutions, are based on individualistic, non-cooperative, survival of the fittest environment. The polar opposite to what is required to the team based, supportive environment that would dramatically reduce work based stress.

A recent study (Feb16) reported in the official journal of the American Psychosomatic Society revealed that giving support — rather than receiving it — has unique positive effects on key brain areas involved in stress and reward responses. Studies in the area of neuroeconomics have shown the direct effect on the brain of cooperative behaviour and how it builds trust and generates the mind-set for future cooperation by activating certain brain regions (orbitofrontal cortex (OFC)/ ventral striatum). However, non-reciprocation of cooperation leads to high levels of mistrust and an unlikelihood of any positive response to future efforts to cooperate.  This is due to the activation of a completely different brain region (Insular cortex) when cooperation is not reciprocated.

At an individual level there is a need to develop personal approaches to dealing with stress. Building our resilience is key to coping better with stress and studies over the past few at the University of California have shown that learning to listen to our own bodies can help build this resilience. One of the lead researchers in the study said:

“ To me, this study says that resilience is largely about body awareness and not rational thinking” Other mechanisms to deal with stress include meditation, exercise, getting closer to nature, developing strong social relationships and ensuring that work does not dominate your life.

My own 30 year career in banking included working & living in London, Amsterdam and Singapore and lots of work related travel, so I have direct experience of coping with work related stress. If I knew then what I know now as an experienced trained coach I expect I would have coped better.

“If you really want to escape the things that harass you, what you’re needing is not to be in a different place but to be a different person.” ― SenecaLetters from a Stoic


Harvard Business Review (HBR) recently published an article in which they referenced a study by the psychologist Professor Larry Rosen of California State University. For the study in 2014 they gave people in four age groups – Baby Boomers, Gen X, Net Generation (born in 80’s) and iGeneration (born in 90’s) – a list of 66 pairs of activities to find out which ones they typically did in tandem. For example, “ Do you eat and email at the same time?” or “ Do you go online and text simultaneously?”.  The percentage that answered ‘yes’ in each category is pretty revealing and shows a clear trend:

  • Baby Boomers – 67%
  • Gen Xers – 75%
  • Net Gen  – 81%
  • iGeners   – 87%

However, many brain studies show that, except where one activity is automatic, multi-tasking is a myth and rather than improving productivity it actually reduces it, as we frequently end-up doing two tasks badly. For example, a Stanford University study referenced in the HBR article showed that people who regularly juggle several streams of content do not pay attention, memorise or manage their tasks as well as those who focus on one thing at a time. Our brain has, in fact, only the capacity to pay attention to one task, at any particular moment. This is what makes using a mobile and driving at the same time so dangerous, as at the moment when some decisive action may be needed on the road, our attention could be focused on our conversion or texting.

Why are we allowing ourselves to be so controlled by technological distractions? Is it FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) or FOBO (Fear of Being Offline) or even Nomophobia (Fear of Being out of Mobile Phone contact) ? These are all forms of anxiety that border on obsession or compulsion.

HBR had a psychologist and a technologist offer tips to deal with our digital distractions:

  • Use behavioural principles to wean yourself off your dependence , over time, on digital devices;
  • Take a recharging break every 90 minutes – get up from your desk and do something different for 10 minutes;
  • Do not use digital devices immediately before bedtime – the Mayo Clinic has noted that the use of blue light emitting LED is detrimental to your sleep.
  • Abandon the myth of “ keeping-up” – the belief that you will be able to process all your emails, read everything important in the media, and send thoughtful posts to your network.
  • Instead, limit the information you receive and streamline the work of reading, responding to, and sharing what matters. With email, use rules and filters to ensure only the essential messages reach you right away. Use a newsreader app such as Feedly, Flipboard or Reeder to limit the information you receive. These apps can also be used to offer one-click solutions for posting on Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook.
  • You can also use tools like Hoosuite, Buffer or Social Inbox to collect info from multiple networks and schedule posts in advance.

The HBR article wisely concludes that although we often turn to technology to soothe our anxieties, overdosing on it just exacerbates them.


Leadership has never been so necessary. Is it innate or learned ?

Some  believe that leaders are a special breed. However, the reality is, that leadership is a skill that can be aquired.

The Irish Times quoting Barry Posner the American leadership coach, claims ” it boils down to one thing: credibility”.

According to Posner the credible leader is honest, competant, forward-looking and inspiring. In all the leadership surveys undertaken these are the traits which people consistently seek in their leaders, whether in business, politics or sport.

Posner asserts that this skill “can be assimilated by those who are self – aware, exhibit inner strength and most importantly of all, have the intelligence to see what doesn’t work”.

Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face (a quote from boxer Mike Tyson). It’s how we adapt when things go wrong that counts.

“A man who wants to lead the orchestra must turn his back on the crowd.” – Max Lucado.  This is a maxim to which our Government should give due consideration, especially in an election year and taking previous experience into account.

As coach of the Irish rugby team Joe Schmidt is giving a very clear example of leadership. Prior to last weekend’s excellent win by Ireland against England in the Six Nations, Tom McGurk, writing in the Sunday Business Post, claimed that coach Schmidt “has imbued this team with his own obsession with perfection”. Mc Gurk further lauds Schmidt’s leadership by stating that “It’s no exaggeration to claim that they now play with a confidence and certitude in their own ability of All Black standards”.

Leadership is everywhere, whether it is exceptionally good or otherwise, is really the issue.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly of Stress (and ideas to help you cope!)

Most of us are aware that a certain amount of stress, in the right circumstances, can enhance performance. Whether we’re competing in a sporting event, trying to complete an important project, or negotiating the terms of a business deal, the adrenaline surge triggered by stress increases our focus and heightens our efficiency, enabling us to perform at the top of our game.

Yet we also know that stress, in addition to enhancing performance, sometimes undermines it. When our stress level is too high or the stress has lasted too long, we can’t concentrate. Creativity evaporates and frustration sets in. Our performance declines and we become distracted, forgetful, and inaccurate.

So how do the clinicians describe this:

“The primary hormonal mediators of the stress response, glucocorticoids and catecholamines, have both protective and damaging effects on the body. In the short run, they are essential for adaptation, maintenance of homeostasis, and survival (allostasis). Yet, over longer time intervals, they exact a cost (allostatic load) that can accelerate disease processes. The concepts of allostasis and allostatic load center around the brain as interpreter and responder to environmental challenges and as a target of those challenges ( Bruce S.McEwen Ph.D.“ Allostatis and Allostatic Load” In the  Neuropsychopharmacology Journal)

And below are just some of the negative health effects of long term stress:

  • Work related stress linked to increased blood fat levels, and cardiovascular health risks (Scandinavian Journal of Public Health, 2013)
  • Activated through permanent stress, immune cells will have a damaging effect on and cause changes to the brain. This may result in mental disorders. ( Ruhr Universität in Germany)
  • Stress contributes directly to the development of Alzheimer’s disease. According to the results now published, stress induces the production of amyloid beta peptide – the molecule associated with the neural plaques characteristic of the disease – and also makes neurons more vulnerable to toxicity. (The Journal Molecular Psychiatry, based on a collaboration between scientists in Germany, Portugal and the UK.)

So where is the boundary between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ stress?

  • The first step in monitoring and managing stress is understanding our own bodily responses to stressors.  Stress activates the body’s fight-or-flight response: heart rate and blood pressure go up, and several hormones are released into the blood stream, the most important of which are epinephrine (also known as adrenaline) and cortisol.
  • In the short term, these hormones boost our focus, memory, and creativity. Harvard researchers Robert M. Yerkes and John D. Dodson, a century ago, calibrated the relationship between stress arousal and performance, finding that as stress goes up, so do efficiency and performance. However, once stress exceeds a certain level, they noted, its benefits disappear and performance declines. Mental flexibility, concentration, and mood all take a hit. This relationship between performance and stress has been dubbed the Yerkes-Dodson law.

To recognize when you’re edging closer to the downward slope of the Yerkes-Dodson curve:

  • Watch your attention. Are you having difficulty maintaining focus and energy following a long stretch of productive work?
  • Monitor your mood swings . Are you less optimistic about the outcome of your project than you were an hour into it? Has your excitement about a challenging problem turned to frustration?
  • Consider your stamina. Do you feel like you’re running out of steam? That you’ve hit a brick wall?
  • Listen to your body. Do you suddenly have a headache? What about back pain, an upset stomach or a racing pulse?

Making some lifestyle changes can also help you keep stress in check:

  • Try to stay grounded: As the phrase goes “Don’t sweat the small stuff” and try to stay on top of the bigger stuff. This means being a good planner and  that you handle the major tasks first.
  • Manage to your time clock: If you are a ‘lark’ then deal with the bigger tasks in the morning when you are at your most productive.
  • Exercise. A walk around the block at lunchtime will do more for your productivity than downing a hasty lunch hunched in front of your computer. My own experience is that being active is a great stress reliever.
  • Eat a balanced diet containing plenty of fruit and vegetables.
  • Get enough sleep: There are lots of recent scientific studies that show the impact of sleep deprivation on our mood and emotions. This makes us more susceptible to negative stress. 
  • Meditate: If you are comfortable with it, then meditation is a great and proven way to help you manage stress.

“The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to chose one thought over another.

William James (Psychologist and Philosopher 1842 – 1910)


Organizations as Brains!

“The metaphor is perhaps one of man’s most fruitful potentialities.” Jose Ortega Y Gasset

In 1986 Gareth Morgan published a ground-braking book called “ Images of Organization” in which he used different metaphors to understand the complex and paradoxical nature of organisational life.  One of the more interesting metaphors he uses is organisations as ‘brains’. He names the chapter ‘Toward Self-Organization’  as he feels the principle of self-organisation most closely resembles the functioning of the brain .

Morgan felt that in using the brain as a metaphor for the organisation we may improve our ability to organise in a manner that improves flexibility and creativity.

The importance of developing organisations as learning systems is strongly emphasised reflecting the incredible capacity of our brains to absorb and use data.  Morgan introduces the interdisciplinary science of cybernetics to focus the insight that developed from this science of the ability of a system to engage in self-regulating behaviour using negative feedback. He believes that cybernetics leads to a theory of communication and learning based around four principles:

  1. The system must have the ability to sense, monitor and scan significant aspects of their environment
  2. They must be able to relate the information to the operating norms that guide system behaviour.
  3. They must be able to detect significant deviations from these norms.
  4. They must be able to initiate action when discrepancies are detected.

Gareth Morgan identifies the shortcoming of such a system is the reliance of the ongoing appropriateness of the norms set. He then introduces the more advanced concept of “ double-loop” learning which depends on being able to take a “double look” at the situation by questioning the relevance of operating norms.

In another highly acclaimed book, four years later, “ The Fifth Discipline” by  Peter Senge developed this whole concept of learning in organisations.  The concept of the ‘Learning Organisation’ became a core theme in the management of organisations.

Returning to the idea of the organisation as a ‘brain’ the Harvard Business Review had an excellent article in July-Aug 2013 edition, called “ The Brain at Work”. In the article the authors considered four core brain networks and described how they might be considered in improving the way we work.The four networks outlined were:

  • The Default Network: : The default network is responsible for one of our most prized abilities: transcendence. The capacity to envision what it’s like to be in a different place, a different time, a different person’s head, or a different world altogether is unique to humans and most potent when the default network is highly engaged. During transcendence, people’s brains “detach” themselves from the external environment, meaning they stop processing external stimuli. If we now consider this in the context of Gareth Morgan’s metaphor of the organisation as a brain we might think of this as the Strategic Innovative aspect of the organisation.
  • The Reward Network:   in response to stimuli that induce enjoyment—such as food and water, money, and praise. Considering this in relation to the metaphor we could view this as the Motivational aspect of the organisation – engagement, monetary recompense, praise etc.
  • The Control Network: when people weigh long-term consequences, check their impulses, and selectively focus their attention. In Gareth Morgan’s metaphor this could be likened to the Formal aspects of the organisation, the policies & procedures that align and control the risks within the organisation.
  •   The Affective Network:  Activates when people experience their emotionsThe Organisation Culture in the Morgan metaphor.  The drivers, the passion or entropy existing in the organisation as exhibited through the human aspects of the culture. How do people deal with each other?

The great hope is that by using metaphor or by developing greater understanding of our brain we may learn to create better organisations that are both more effective, innovative  and more suitable for people to learn & develop their individual potential.

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