Crossing the Stress Point
In the 2003 film Falling Down Bill Foster, Michael Douglas’s divorced and unemployed engineer, descends in a stress induced downward spiral, angrily fighting and shooting his way across LA to make it to his daughter’s birthday.
“I’ve passed the point of no return. Do you know what that is, Beth? That’s the point in a journey where it’s longer possible to go back to the beginning. It’s like when those astronauts got in trouble. I don’t know, somebody messed up, and they had to get them back to Earth. But they had passed the point of no return. They were on the other side of the moon and were out of contact for like hours. Everybody waited to see if a bunch of dead guys in a can would pop out the other side. Well, that’s me. I’m on the other side of the moon now and everybody is going to have to wait until I pop out.”
Given how long the queue to the armoury is and how far in advance you have to book ammunition, I don’t think British soldiers are likely to go full-Bill-Foster.
But stress is a double edged sword. On one hand, stress has a multitude of ill effects on the individual and the team. But at the right levels, stress helps us focus and perform well.
It’s not just as straight forward as saying ‘stress comes from overwork’, or ‘stress reduces performance’. Once you understand what causes stress you can look at how to manage it in yourself and in your team.
What is the stress point?
Stress isn’t just about workload – it’s about perception. The perception that the demands are greater than the perceived resources available. Those resources include not just time and material but also the person’s capability and capacity. The perceived importance of the task can also magnify the stress. This magnification of stress is something that’s often found when leaders are responsible for their subordinates’ lives or when staff officers feel responsible for subordinate units but perceive they have little ability to help.
Below the Stress Point, the person is happy they have the resources to deal with the tasks at hand. But as a perceived gap between demands and resources develops the person goes past the Stress Point. Beyond the Stress Point, a person starts to struggle mentally. At the Crisis Point mental health gets worse, decision making suffers. Eventually the person reaches Collapse where there is a cascading failure in performance.
Stress has several general effects that you probably already knew about. It affects the immune system, causes sleep loss and can lead to clinical depression.
But, specifically, it has a large effect on the part of the brain called the hippocampus. That’s important because the hippocampus regulates emotional control and has a huge role in learning and memory. Damage or shrinkage in the hippocampus causes memory loss, loss of emotional control and greatly reduces the ability to learn.
The hippocampus constantly regenerates itself. In a rat’s brain it regenerates over 9000 neurons a day. Stress prevents this – makes it more difficult for neurons to fire, damages synapses and prevents new synapses from forming. This means the hippocampus (and in turn learning and memory) are hugely responsive to stress.
So stress is all bad?
Sports coaches will tell you stress is not all bad. There is a sweet spot where you have enough to put you at peak performance. Generally, whether stress is good or bad depends on the task:
Stress is ok for simple tasks. When you are doing a simple task you can carry a great deal of stress. But it is bad for complex tasks, where too much causes a massive performance tail-off.
Short periods of stress that push us over the Stress Point cause a performance tail off, but they put us in the learning/growth zone. If you put yourself under stress for a short period of time you can identify the effects and develop coping mechanisms without burning out. There is also evidence that dealing with stress adapts the hippocampus so that it is better able to deal with stress.
But in the long term, staying over the Stress Point has the opposite effect. Stress physically damages the Hippocampus. The brain gets damaged and this impairs learning and creativity.
A good analogy is training to run a marathon. If your first training run is for 26 miles you’ll probably damage your body and impair your ability (and motivation!) to continue training. Instead you should do shorter sessions of running with increasing intensity and length. This causes your body to adapt. You also learn how to cope with the negative effects of running such as tiredness and soreness – but you don’t eliminate running.
So its important we subject ourselves to enough stress to grow, but not so much we burn out or damage our ability to learn.
What does a leader do about stress?
A few years ago I deployed to Afghanistan on the staff. My role rarely took me into harm’s way and I beasted myself as a result. After four months of 15-hour days the lack of sleep and my perception of the task overcame me. I made mistakes. Eventually I piled in.
So what does a leader have to do?
If your team is doing a task with high complexity, that requires creativity, where learning and improving are essential and where decision making and risk judgement are critical, then you need to make sure you manage your team’s stress levels. You have to train them to deal with stress, but outside of training you have to keep them short of the Stress Point. Here’s how:
1. Deal with your team’s perceptions
An easy answer is to provide more resources or reduce the demand. But instead remember – stress is about perceived demands and resources, and about perceived task importance. Instead, work on those perceptions. Hold a mirror up to them.
I’ve worked myself to collapse at tasks where I didn’t think I could have been given more resources (including time), where the job demanded perfection and where I thought the task was of the utmost importance. With hindsight, I could have asked for help, perfection was unnecessary and, on balance, the job was not the boss’s highest priority.
As a leader you need to be on the lookout for people who will drive themselves to collapse. They sometimes need to be reminded what is important.
2. Understand how you create those perceptions
You also need to understand the perception you create by what you say and do. It is incredibly simple to make every task priority number one for your staff. That’s a great way to build stress – the demand ramps up; with everyone working on priority number one there is never enough resource; and every task has stress-inducing importance. Have the strength to chose what isn’t a priority for the team.
3. Ensure your team get sleep
Just like when we are running (or tabbing), sleep is a powerful recovery mechanism. Long term lack of sleep reinforces stress and impacts the recovery and growth of Hippocampus. It makes emotional highs higher and lows lower. It reduces learning and creativity. Also, it damages decision making processes and drives risk-taking and reward driven behaviours. You don’t need to track your team’s sleep but its worth checking work routines to ensure they aren’t reinforcing stress. If your late nights in the office are causing them to stay late, and consequently choose between sleep or time with their family, then you are adding to the problem.
4. Train for stress adaption…
The hippocampus adapts to stress, so you can develop your team’s ability to deal with stress by training for it. The adaption happens when you put people into the area between the Stress Point and the Crisis Point.
Exercises should push us to failure and push us to uncomfortable levels of stress. Not just to help us make decisions under pressure but to also help our brains adapt to the stress. We don’t do our subordinates any favour when we given them a stress-free exercise or training serial.
5. …but teach coping tools as well
Even better than simply aiming for brain adaption is to teach coping mechanisms. I developed coping mechanisms during my most stressful jobs. I was told it was one of the benefits of being in a crunchy job. On the other hand, I could easily have been taught those coping mechanisms in a few simple coaching sessions.
Once you’ve finished an exercise (or any stressful period) hold an After Action Review or reflection session on how people perceived stress, how they might identify it and how cope with it.
Stress is growth and your team needs to grow… but not break
When you are leading a team you need to keep your team members in the growth zone where the stress levels are high enough to peak perform, high enough to aid brain adaption, but not so high they damage learning and creativity.
Know your team well enough to spot those who will over-work themselves. When you spot trouble, manage your follower’s perceptions to lower the stress. And don’t forget to teach the stress management techniques you learnt yourself.
Stress isn’t a rite of passage. Its a factor a good leader manages in order to achieve peak performance and peak growth.
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Media Credits: Images © Crown Copyright under Open Government Licence v3.0
PS: Although I haven’t widely referenced what I’ve written, much of the thinking behind this article is based on the work of Prof Geoff Bird, Associate Professor of Experimental Psychology at Oxford University. He gets my recommendation as a speaker on the subject should you want someone to help your team explore it further.