What does stress look like?

I often get asked by people who are interested in my research “so, what does stress look like?” I find this question to be somewhat entertaining, as I think that most stress researchers would agree that stress doesn’t really have a particular “look” about it. This retort is something that Dr. Robert Sapolsky of Stanford University, author of the book Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers argues for in his book. I think that an important part of our stress response is in how we talk about “stress.”

For most (and, myself included), it seems as if stress is a badge of honor. We feel good when we can say to others “I am under so much stress today.” It does make others sort of wonder, “well shoot, I was feeling pretty good today…should I be stressed?!?” Indeed, the nature of our working world (especially here in the good ole’ US-of-A) is one in which workers regularly report that they feel more accomplished when they are under great stress. Of course, without a clearer picture of what stress it, I think it becomes rather complicated to say what might be considered good stress and what might not. Or, at the very least…what might be considered good communication about stress and what isn’t.

So as to not belabor all the negative side effects of stress, let’s start off with a simple description as to why some may consider stress to be a “good” feeling. First, we tend to think that stressed out workers are actually “working.” Have you ever heard the phrase “if you want something done, give it to someone who is busy” recently? Indeed, there is a prevailing attitude in many organizations that those people who are stressed out are actually working hard…trying to achieve the most that they can. For organizations, this is a great benefit of stress — the organization constantly cultivates a culture of stress, such that those who are not stressed are clearly not working. So, where’s the “good” in this? From a worker’s perspective…NONE!. From a business perspective, this may be the one major benefit of stress. By fostering a place where stress equates to productivity, American workers are trapped. I tend to think that this attitude is more prevalent in organizations that are competitive by nature (think finance, engineering teams, sales, etc.). However, I don’t think that this perspective is restricted only to those people working in auto sales. In fact, I tend to recall much of my experience in graduate school. Quite frankly the one thing that graduate students talk about beyond everything else is how stressed out they are. I can’t recall how many times I asked a colleague of mine “how are you doing today?” and the quick reply was always “ohh…so, busy.” Perhaps that was true. Or, perhaps this response is the adequate and appropriate response, given the organizational culture — one in which stress is the norm.

So, I start off this blog by setting the stage for what is to come. With the American organization designed to be a place for stressed out workers, I figure the next (and presumably only) logical place to go would be to describe how and why stress gets communicated in our workplace. In addition to that, I am going to talk about some of the best ways to improve organizations by building a supportive culture. I am looking forward to engaging you in a conversation about how we can rebuild our organizations with the attitude that they must become more humane…lest we will perish in a fiery storm of stress-related disorders.

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