Nigel Cassidy: Pressure at work; is there really such a thing as good stress which can boost your team's performance? I'm Nigel Cassidy and this is the CIPD podcast.
Now, like it or not, stress has become a defining feature of our working lives. The CIPD's latest health and wellbeing at work report found 8 out of 10 organisations reporting stress related absences and most of us, we've had a basinful, haven't we, in the last couple of years; family health and financial worries have affected work behaviour, performance and relationships. It's no wonder that we see stress as something to be avoided, at all costs. But even so, maybe pressure at work is getting a bad rap since we know that stress responses are crucial to our survival, could we maybe reduce the negative stress and harness some positive pressure to achieve more? Well, let's find out. With me, an employee wellbeing and culture specialist who has run her own mentoring business for 11 years, she's also a Samaritan and a police chaplain, Alexandra Lichtenfeld. Hello?
Alexandra Lichtenfeld: Hello, hello. Hello.
NC: With her, a chartered psychologist who has long delivered mental health and wellbeing programmes to global clients, she is Clinical Director of the wellbeing data and insights firm 87%, she's Dr Sarah Pitts. Hello?
Dr Sarah Pitts: Hi, Nigel, thank you so much for having me.
NC: And to complete the set, an international and strategic HR change leader at Total Energies who has had a lot to say about the merits of careful harnessing of pressure for good, it's Alan Lambert. Hello.
Alan Lambert: Hi. Pleased to be with you.
NC: Alan, before we get to the science and this whole rather counterintuitive idea of deliberately turning up the pressure on people for results, I mean it's business life itself that winds people up every day at the moment, isn't it? I mean, it's managers and colleagues that stress us out through their style and expectations. Don't we have to fix all that first?
AL: So that's a good point, Nigel, I think in any organisation, the people we work with can be indeed a trigger for some of the stress reactions that we have, managers amongst the key people that can play a good role in people's wellbeing in the workplace. So yeah, you're absolutely right that we need to make sure these fundamental basics are in place to begin with and that the managers are taking good care and supporting their teams.
NC: So, how do we do that? How do you just establish where people are just getting needlessly stressed out by systems, by meetings that don't need to take place, by management checking up on them all the time, not leaving them to get on with the job?
AL: Now, one of the things that we think about is the role of the manager in acting as a manager coach and supporting and facilitating the teams, perhaps taking a step back from the traditional way of management and putting themselves more in a role of a facilitator, getting out of the way and letting the team get on with the task in hand, and helping them to do so. Simplifying things if things need to be simplified and helping people innovate and find the most efficient way of doing things.
NC: Well, let's go to Sarah Pitts. I mean I guess stress, I mean it's a biological response to events, isn't it? Hopefully, a temporary, but can you tell us a bit more about what happens when we're faced with these conflicts, with overwork and all the rest? I mean, there are physical effects and there's stuff going on in our brains.
SP: Absolutely right. And, you know, we all know stress has many sources. It comes from our environment, in terms of our work environment and the people around us, but also it comes from our bodies, as you’ve said, and our thoughts and how we view the world around us. So, when we feel under pressure, what's happening in our nervous system is instructing our bodies to release stress hormones, including those you may have heard of, adrenaline and cortisol, and something else called noradrenaline. And these are what produce those physiological changes and it helps us cope with the threat or danger that we see upon us. That's called our stress response. When you feel it, you know it's happening to you because you get tense, your heart beats faster, you're ultimately preparing your body to fight, flee or, in some cases, freeze. And because those stressors that we're facing at work aren't as life threatening as they might have been thousands of years ago, where you're running from something, some of those chemicals aren't needed in our body anymore, so they get stored up and we sort of overreact and over respond and that's what makes us feel unwell, when that persists.
NC: So, if that's so, Alexandra, then do you kind of agree that if we can sort out the everyday issues with all that, that gives us a bit more headroom to earn the right to turn up the heat on particular projects?
ALi: To go back to the reason why we're having this conversation, you know, what is stress? Is there good stress? What is bad stress? So usually, stress is discussed as a negative and I think Alan, you know, would agree with that for sure. And most of us equate stress with something bad. So, to go back to your question is there such a thing as good stress, there is, because stress can also be positive and eustress, which is good stress, it's Greek by the way...
NC: Alright, let's just pick up on this idea of eustress. Now this is spelt like E, U, stress.
ALi: E, U, stress, yes.
NC: I haven't come across this before, I thought it had to do with Brexit. So...
ALi: E, U means good.
NC: OK, Sarah, this is a thing, this is a proven thing?
SP: Absolutely right. Eustress is the positive form of stress. We all need stress. We need stress to live, we need stress to breathe, we need stress to get out the door. But there's, like Alex said, there's the positive type that that keeps us going, keeps us on our toes, it motivates us, it gives us energy; and then there's the negative stress, which I talked about the hormones and things that are happening in your body that builds up those toxins and makes us feel unable to perform or to go on in some cases.
NC: OK, so Alan, how do we start to tap the good stress, if you like, the pressure that gets results, that gets teams together, that gets a bit of adrenaline going when there's something going on, what part do managers have to play in that?
AL: Yeah, managers for me, play an absolutely pivotal role in getting positive stress, eustress right. Managers are the ones who are setting objectives, managers are the ones who are assigning the tasks to people in an organisation and they're the ones who are going to be deciding which human resources, which individuals they put against which activities.
NC: So I mean, it seems to me you need to know your people and their capabilities pretty well, don't you, before you even try to raise the bar?
ALi: No one person has the same level of stress and what leads to stress or what leads to good stress or distress, so you have to know your people.
NC: I was going to ask Sarah about that. We hear talk, don’t we, about snowflakes, about certain workers who you kind of almost get the sense are kind of frightened of hard work, who set the bar for themselves rather low. I mean, do we actually have to sort of look at how every individual responds to stress or what they think is stress? Maybe it isn't stress at all?
SP: I think that yes, it's really important to get to know your people better, like Alex says and like Alan is referring to, because then you can understand, for them, what causes pressure is not just stress, it's what's important to them. What are their passions? What are their strengths? And when you think about the generational differences, you're thinking about that younger age group, the Gen Z and the younger millennials, who have watched all of us, you know, make ourselves ill and are thinking that's not for me, or I want to do it differently, or I'd like to have a different sort of lifestyle. And so, it's not the same for every generation, it's not a generational bias. You've got to get to know your people because your strengths, their strengths and their passions are what's going to impact their pressure and how they perform. And I'm sure Alan can say a lot about what he has seen, in terms of differences between people and why it really pays to get to know your people.
AL: Yeah, thanks. I fully agree with that. I think the key things that any manager needs to keep in mind when they're assigning tasks to their team, first of all is the skills, so what level of competence do people have and, as you've just said, Sarah, the other aspect is what intrinsic drivers they have, what motivates them. If you know individually, the intrinsic drivers and the skills, you can get the stimulation level right and place people in a position where they've got focus and rational thinking to their job, and that gets them to behave in the most efficient way. If you're putting them outside of that area of comfort and you are putting them in a zone where they have no skills or no motivation, then clearly it's not going to work as well.
ALi: It's very difficult for any leadership team and any management team. You've got to know yourself, so you have to know your own limits, and what stretches me might not stretch Sarah or Nigel or yourself, Alan. And the same with managers, all people manage differently and most managers, I hope that Alan will agree with this, are not trained well enough to manage their people, on the whole, in UK businesses. Or in any businesses.
NC: So tell me, when you're working with a company, Alexandra, just tell me about the contrast. Say, when you go in and people say they're suffering from a lot of stress, they possibly are, so how do you counsel them? And then just say a little bit more about you try and harness this eustress, this good stress, the pressure at work which actually gets results and people find satisfying.
ALi: It's interesting you ask that because, to me, it's... and what I've found in all the companies I go, and where I mentor their staff, from leadership team right down to receptionists, it's about relationships and it stems from the relationships. And a lot of the people I have mentored over the years, most of their stressors have been from not understanding the relationships they're in. A lot of my mentoring starts on one to one but often, Nigel, I bring a third person in who is maybe causing my mentee the stress that they're feeling and then you open up, and it's not a can of worms, it's a wonderful place to be, because you open up a conversation between two people who haven't understood each other. That is a small amount of the stress that happens. But then they start to understand each other and what workload they can or cannot handle. So, to answer that question, it's down to relationships. That's what I find when you mentor people. A lot of people can go up to someone and ask to do something, or be asked to do something, and they know that they're swamped with everything and they also don't know how to say, "No, I cannot do this now but I can do it next week". It's being able to articulate how you're feeling in a very positive way.
SP: Or even to be able to say, "I'm not the best person for that job".
SP: And that confidence to say that to someone definitely comes from within but managers need to learn that too. They need to build that trust with their people so that people feel comfortable and confident enough to say things like that, things that they perceive might be not taken well. Actually, Alan, you could say well give them, as a manager, an opportunity to place that person where they're best fit and bring someone else into that particular area, if needed.
AL: Absolutely. I certainly don't disagree with what you're saying on the need for management training; I've been working in leadership and management training coming up for a decade, and HR for longer than that. But the thing I would like to perhaps drawback is it's not all on the manager shoulders, it's also about having a growth mindset and an approach to learning on the individual themselves. And that's crucial because, if you don't see the challenge in a positive light, you're going to feel negative pressure. Whereas if you see the challenge as something that... as an opportunity to learn and grow and develop, you're more likely to see it in a positive light, therefore harness it as eustress and use it as a as a learning opportunity.
NC: It's interesting you've mentioned that, Alan, because I just saw some of the stuff you've been writing, and you put this thing about reframing stressful work as a positive challenge. If you really can do that, I can see that's brilliant. But if it actually doesn't work, I can imagine people being very cynical, you know, they go to their manager, they feel stressed, and they're just told to reframe, but the workload hasn't changed
ALi: In listening to everybody, it's interesting, I think the word stress, when we're talking about good stress has to go. It's not stress.
NC: Yes. So, if this is not about putting more stress on workers to get results, what is it then?
ALi: I think it's about helping a worker to learn how to be on top of all the pressures they have at work, but also life and work crosses over.
NC: I was going to say, that would help them outside the workplace, wouldn’t it?
ALi: It would. So, you remove the word stress from the good side of it and you talk about how can we help you stimulate your work ethic or stimulate you enough to start to grow, as Alan was talking about, growing as a person and have a feeling and a sense of achievement. Instead of using good stress, say let's find a way of stimulating you, let's find a way of how you can grow as a person, outside and inside the workplace. And, you know, even asking your employee or your manager, what can we do to help you achieve what you want to achieve. And again, people's goals are in varying different levels.
NC: I did read that happy people in the workplace aren't the most productive.
ALi: I would disagree with that wholeheartedly. I think contented, happy people are much more productive. There's no presenteeism there, that's when you're feeling really bad about yourself and you're still going to work, and you can't... you can't actually get anything done. But from my experience, from mentoring, is that after three months of mentoring a person is at least 60% more productive. That's what I've found in the business I've...
ALi: Yeah. They're happy, they're contented, and they're happy in themselves, they learn about themselves, therefore, as you said before, take it outside of the workplace. What they're learning about themselves helps them in their life, as well as their work life. A happy person is a much more productive person, that is my view.
NC: So, let me ask both Sarah and Alan, how do people managers help engender this in the workplace? Because of course, they're not necessarily supervising people's work all the time. This is about a much broader way that an entire operation works.
AL: Yeah, you're absolutely right, managers are not on the back of their team the whole time. However, my view is that the manager needs to have this helicopter view of the activity. And if we look at, particularly in my industry where we're in an energy industry, it's a heavily industrial asset focused business and, with our industrial assets, then we'd be taking care of monitoring them and making sure that they're operating the way they should do, and they're not being pushed over and over they're built capacity. And for me, the managers' role is the same but for the human assets, or the human capital of the organisation. They shouldn't be on the back of the team all the time, but they should be monitoring to make sure that things are not getting out of control, and that they're able to adjust if necessary, if they do.
SP: I would agree with that and say that, in terms of monitoring, you know, there's all these technologies now that we use, that HR uses, but also our company in particular, that's what we do, is we embed monitoring and tools to assess how are your people feeling, how are they getting on, do they feel they're being heard, are they listened to, do they fit, do they belong. And it's these kinds of things that make people feel confident and comfortable in their role, and able to have those relationships that Alex talked about, but also have that word that you said, Nigel, happiness. Happiness is such a hard thing to measure, because it means so many different things to different people. And I think sometimes that research is a little bit misleading because, you know, a lot of people don't know what makes them happy. A lot of people think that what they should be doing leads to happiness, as opposed to what really matters or what sort of personal values we have.
ALi: And also you're not happy 24 hours a day, seven days a week; you have moments of happiness. But within those moments of happiness, you want to have moments of feeling worth.
NC: I can see why that might be true. I was seeing some figures here on what jobs that people said were the most stressful, to use that word, and midwifery, social care, and bar and restaurant work came up at the top of the list. These are jobs which can be very pressured. But I would imagine, for some people who've chosen them, they're also immensely satisfied.
SP: Can I respond to that? Actually, what you're saying is really valuable. Because it's in those health and social care environments, what we're seeing a lot of in the data is compassion fatigue. So, it's people who go into that work where they're looking after others, and they do it because they love it and it's important to them, and it really matters. Those people score really high on happiness. But what they don't score high on is anxiety and depression and stress; they have all of those symptoms of compassion fatigue because that relationship work is so draining. And, in terms of the hospitality industry, what I know from working in hospitality is that, again it's about the customers, it's about the relationships. You have this demand, right, but you're people facing all of the time. And some of those people aren't treating you very well, if you're working in hospitality. You're sort of just there to service them. And that can be... I have seen for people in some big global, fast food chains, that is debilitating, that makes you not want to come into work to deal with those interactions that are dismissive or challenging.
NC: So Alan, does this mean we can't take down the pressure in some everyday jobs for people; that we've got to be very careful about raising it when we think that might be necessary?
AL: I'm kind of stuck on answering that question, because I've got the image of hospitality in my brain, Nigel, because when I trained, I was financing my legal studies through doing lots of bar work and waitering work, and it just made me reflect back to my youth and thinking actually, some of those jobs were the highest pressured jobs that I've ever done, including all the HR and legal jobs that I've had since. And I personally, if you were to ask me which type of a rota would I be in, would I be in a quiet country pub, where you'd have maybe two customers come to the bar every hour? Or would you rather be in Cardiff Student Union, which is where I worked as well at some point, when you're serving a hundred customers in any sort of ten minute period, I would much rather be in the busy one. And that's maybe something about me, that's maybe very personal.
ALi: But that's also an example of eustress, Alan, because...
AL: Is it?
ALi: ...that's you challenging yourself, becoming invigorated by what you're doing, and starting to see small wins in yourself, like I managed that, I've got home, I served everyone. I'm going to do it again tomorrow. And you might say to yourself, I'm going to do even better tomorrow or I'm going to talk to people differently tomorrow. But I wonder whether... and I'm only thinking about this now, whether the vernacular needs to be changed, because is it pressure or is it understanding what people need in a business? Because if you understand what people need in the business, and you've got to understand what the business needs as well, because, you know, ROI can't be forgotten and your bottom line can't be forgotten, but if you understand that you don't... if your people believe you don't want to put pressure on them but you want them to be the best they can be, that is a very different vernacular.
SP: I agree. I agree with you. But I think that pressure is needed. And I think you're saying the same thing. And Alan, your point about bad environment, I also prefer a high pressure, high demand environment. So you kind of can't remove the pressure and...
NC: I mean, it can be abused, can't it, by managers?
SP: It can.
ALi: Of course.
NC: And I saw that play, I don't know if any of you saw it, quite recently, about people working in a call centre and whenever they kept putting more and more pressure on people to work more and more quickly, and produce evermore, you know, per hour, they kept making them parrot, you know, you've got to be totally customer focused, or whatever the phrase was. And this... I mean that was grossly unfair.
Ali: But some people like targets and some people don't like targets, and some people who don't like targets do better than those who like targets, it's all...
NC: So, it comes round to that thing about understanding your people better.
ALi: Exactly, you took the words out of my mouth, Nigel.
NC: And actually getting them to put the pressure on themselves, Alan, perhaps?
AL: It's also about capability and skill. In your example, Nigel, of call centre, even if you are 100% competent in answering the calls but you're expected to do so in a way that is just totally unachievable, that you're not going to have the capacity to answer the volume of calls being expected to answer, despite having the level of skill and competency, it's going to drive your ability to do it right back down to low which, if you've then got the challenge on the other side, it's going to put you into a moment of anxiety. So, you need to make sure that the... not only the competency of the individual, but also the expectation that’s being put by the organisation is not putting someone in inability to fulfil the task.
ALi: But on top of that, I think businesses... I will go back to using the word pressure, put pressure on the people but don't actually give the resources to their people, to equip them to deal with what they're being asked to do as well. So, it's a whole circle of things that have to be addressed.
SP: And that's part of what causes stress. Stress is, in fact, scientifically a reaction to not having the resources to deal with the demand. And I think demand is the thing to be considered really, from an HR and a business point of view. Because putting people under pressure, we'll use that hospitality scenario again, that pressure is inherent, you've signed up for that and that's fine, because you can handle it. It's the demand. If you're doing that for 6, 8, 10, 12 hours, 5, 6, 7 days a week, that's when it becomes unmanageable. Because the body is built in a certain way to handle physiological change, and pressure and stress, we're designed that way. That's what makes us so resilient. But if we don't have those periods of rest after performing at our peak, then we will succumb to that lack of energy, and we will decline in our performance. And that's the science, that's all of us. And we all have those peaks, and we all have those troughs, and it's part of... part of knowing yourself is what is my rhythm, what is my capability, what can I handle, where do I need to skill up, where do I need support, at what point do I need rest. So, we have to know those things as individuals. We also have to be confident enough to tell our managers and our leaders those things about ourselves, and then ideally have an open, welcome, honest conversation with our manager.
NC: OK, so as we try and draw this to a close, let me go back to Alan and ask you just a sort of final thought from you, if you can, about how you dial down the needless stress and that you just move to a situation where you have positive pressure in an organisation.
AL: From a manager's perspective, it's about knowing the individuals, setting them objectives that are achievable and that are in line with their capability to deliver. So, it's about getting them to push the boundaries of what is manageable but, as Sarah was saying a moment ago, not doing so on a full time basis. So, it's about pushing them at times and then also allowing them times to recover.
SP: I would say that's right from an individual and a managerial point of view. I would add that, from a business point of view, a fundamental culture change or a shift in attitude requires buy in from the top. And I have seen this first hand, the companies that do this really well, they don't just endorse it, they live it, they believe it. And they role model that ethos, and it takes time to embed and to change things. But otherwise, your people won't... they won't perceive it as being authentic and then there's a dissonance between what's being said and what's being done, and then people feel confused and they don't fit. And that just causes more stress.
ALi: If they don't trust you, they're not going to trust any of the solutions you might put in place to help them along the way. So, you know, it doesn't always come from top down, some of the things we talk about in business, but this does. Because even the most senior managers and leadership teams, they all suffer. Everybody suffers, we know this. And I've worked with a management consultancy firm before and I didn't work for them for very long, because they're very high flying business management consultants that they don't want to talk about any of the crap, if I can say that word, that they're having to deal with and I could not work...
NC: The messy reality.
ALi: Messy reality. They just... they didn't want to and, you know, and Sarah would agree, there are some businesses that, you know, just don't want help and don't want...
SP: They don’t, no.
ALi: They just don't. They don’t want to hear it. I think they probably know, deep down.
NC: So finally, I mean all the stuff you do with people, Alexandra, are you convinced that it is possible to dial down on the needless stress and actually make work more of a pleasure, using a little bit of pressure now and again?
ALi: I think you can dial down the stress and make productivity higher, not necessarily by dialling down the pressure. It's about getting your people to understand why they are having to do what you want them to do. Something my dad taught me many years ago, when he was an officer in the army, and he said, a lot of officers would go to their people and say do this, this, this and this, and he would say to them, I need you to do this because it will have a direct effect to this, this and this. And he taught me that many, many years ago; maybe why I'm in this field that I'm in. You have to explain to people why you want them to do stuff.
SP: I would agree. I would totally agree with Alex and say that you can use pressure purposely in organisations, it's not counterintuitive. You just have to make the employee part of that conversation. Because if you have these really high expectations of your people and you don't let them know that, then there's not a mutual conversation.
ALi: And at the same time, you have to enable your people to believe that if they come to you for help, or advice that you will listen.
NC: Brilliant, Alexandra Lichtenfeld, Sarah Pitts and Alan Lambert, thank you all very much for a brilliant discussion, really on the money in this still very uncertain hybrid working world. We've got lots of good podcasts coming up in the next few months, so do subscribe where you get your podcasts. More coming but, until next time, from all of us here at the CIPD, we wish you only a smooth and productive day.