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Work Smart

There's No Such Thing As Stress—Here's What's Really Bothering You

By trying to cure stress in the workplace, we're treating a symptom (or many of them), not a cause.

[Photo: kennedy via Wikimedia Commons]

According to the American Psychological Association, two-thirds of Americans identify work as a main source of stress in their lives, and nearly 30% report "extreme" levels of stress. The sources are many—job security, workload, expectations, changes in responsibilities or work hours, management relationships, and work-life balance—and the costs are alarming. It's been estimated that U.S. employers lose hundreds of billions of dollars each year thanks to absenteeism, lowered productivity, staff turnover, workers' compensation, medical insurance, and other stress-related expenses. So it's no wonder that stress management has been called one of "business's most important challenges of the 21st century."

But here's the thing: The reason we can't cure stress in the workplace is because stress does not exist.

Speaking Of Stress

Let me explain. Consider just a few of the many physical symptoms of stress: shallow breathing, muscle tension, neck or back pain, trouble sleeping, appetite changes, loss of interest in usual pleasures, etc. When these symptoms occur, the body is telling us that we've exceeded its tolerance for what we want it to handle. So what is it, at root, that causes us (or any mammal) to experience these symptoms? Fear.

In studying this issue over the past 20 years, I've researched the working habits of some of the most successful people. And it isn't that they don't experience stress at all—they do—but they don't seem to experience it in the same way that many of us do. In fact, what's intrigued me most is how seldom they use the word "stress," and how often they describe pressure and uncertainty in terms relating to fear. Here's Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric:

When you are running an institution like this, you are always scared at first. You’re afraid you’ll break it. People don’t think about leaders this way, but it’s true. Everyone who's running something goes home at night and wrestles with the same fear. Am I going to be the one who blows this place up? [my emphasis]

In his book Creativity, Inc., Pixar CEO Ed Catmull uses the words "stress" once and "anxiety" once, but the word "fear" crops up 87 times.

So why do these and so many other successful people prefer the word fear to stress? Successful people assume that whenever they're doing something important, they'll experience fear—and they're right. Every animal has a built-in fear response: the deer runs, the bird flies, the mouse burrows, and the lion charges. Successful leaders appear to have discovered the healthiest possible human response to fear: reaching out to others for support.

That, in turn, spares them from some of the "stress" symptoms that cripple others. When a child has a nightmare, it runs to a parent's bed, immediately assuaging the fear. Studies with adults have found that this impulse stays with us. Asking others for help lowers cholesterol, increases longevity (since our fear response isn't chronically kicking into gear), and is essential for high-performing groups. Top among all the challenges organizations face is to make it safe for team members to bring their fears, concerns, and mistakes to others.

Sharing Fears, Reducing Stress

So it's no surprise that the most successful organizations actually cultivate opportunities for employees to do just that. In Fortune last year, editor Geoff Colvin described Google's cafeteria: "They put those tables a little too close together, so you might hit someone when you push your chair out and thus meet someone new . . . the food is just a tool for reaching a goal, and the goal is strong, numerous, rewarding relationships."

The point is that relationships among employees can help disperse fear across an organization, rather than forcing individuals to carry those burdens alone. The encouragement and goodwill alone that those connections generate can improve employees' mental, emotional, and even physical health. What's more, the know-how and resources that come from associating with capable people help teams develop collaborative skills for dealing with fear-inducing episodes.

Google studied its managers a few years ago and found that the best were those who did three things: they met often with employees, showed interest in people's personal lives, and asked many questions, rather than just giving commands or instructions. Not only do those behaviors help create the sorts of collaborative networks that reduce fear, they build up the skills it takes to respond to it.

In fact, fear within the workplace may be a gift: It can act as an early warning system that something's going wrong, alerting leaders to things that need their attention—all before those things start stressing everyone out.

So let's stop just treating stress as the disease, and think harder (and ahead) about managing fear, which has been with us for much longer.

Robert Maurer, PhD, is a clinical psychologist, business consultant, and author of Mastering Fear: Harness Emotion to Achieve Excellence in Health, Work, and Relationships (Career Press). He is the founder of Science of Excellence and a faculty member at UCLA and the University of Washington School of Medicine.

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