Stress: the positives

We frequently say we are ‘stressed’ when we talk about our relationships at
home, our jobs or indeed as a result of the traffic jam on the way into work.
But when most of us refer to stress we don’t mean that we are physically ill as
a result of a jam on the M11, or a row with our partner.

We mean that we feel pressure, something with which we ultimately can cope.

Indeed, according to a recent survey by The Aziz Corporation, 92% of bosses
believe that placing staff under pressure can be beneficial in maintaining
motivation, ensuring deadlines are met and the business is run efficiently.

However, anxiety and stress are responsible for the loss of around 45 million
working days a year, costing the British economy a staggering £100bn. The Aziz
Corporation research also shows that 87% of bosses are worried that they will
face an increasing number of stress-related compensation claims over the next
five years.

This poses the question: how can we ensure that stress is positive and not

The answer is in how we manage pressure. Stress has become a buzzword used to
account for all sorts of ailments. Fortunately, the pressure we all feel when we
are stressed can often be harnessed and used productively. Indeed, our research
showed that most bosses believe that the ability to manage stress effectively is
an important skill for a successful business career. To do this we need to look
at the positive relationship between pressure and performance.

Because pressure is not the same as stress it is essential to make the
connection that pressure can improve productivity. It is also necessary to look
at how we can create stress within ourselves and to recognise and gain control
over sources of pressure.

Part of this process involves building a positive frame of mind and
developing communication skills, enabling people to create personal strategies
to cope with pressure, so that it does not develop into a debilitating
condition, but is instead an aid to their motivation and efficiency.

To achieve this I advocate a three-pronged approach, which examines
environmental pressures, the physical symptoms of stress and individuals’
patterns of self-belief.

By evaluating the physical environment in which you find yourself, it is
possible to ascertain factors that either create or alleviate stress. For
example, having your desk beside a noisy photocopier could induce stress as
people gather around it for a chat while it churns out reams of paper.

This environmental stress could be alleviated by an office reshuffle.
Similarly, leafy plants and a cheerful colour scheme could induce a calming
effect on you and your colleagues.

External demands, such as heavy workloads, time management and job design
also fall under this remit. It may be that these contribute to stress and could
be modified. More flexible working hours or a better work-life balance can
improve quality of life in a way that a salary increase alone cannot.

For people already exhibiting physical signs of strain, however, this alone
may not be enough. Tension, binge-eating and impaired concentration are just a
few examples of the physical symptoms of stress. These can be combated through
exercise and healthy living.

Indeed, our research has shown that while a third of managers have a drink or
two to cope with stress, two-thirds opt for exercise or healthy living. When we
get stressed adrenaline is pumped to our muscles as part of our in-built ‘fight
or flight’ mechanism.

But because most stress is attributed to the workplace, it is not recommend
that you don your boxing gloves. An exercise class or a brisk walk could be just
what you need.

Our belief system governs our thoughts and actions. The glass is half empty –
or is it half full? While having excessive demands placed upon you is obviously
going to make you feel pressurised, and can lead to panic and stress, it is
often our attitude to these demands, rather than our exposure to them, which
determines whether we get stressed.

The Roman philosopher Epictetus espoused this view in the first century AD
when he wrote: ‘People are disturbed not by things, but by the view they take of

You are in an important meeting and you put forward an idea that you think is
great, but it gets shot down by your boss. In such a situation it could be that
you generate your own source of stress through negative thoughts and self doubt.

You tell yourself: ‘My idea has failed, therefore I am a failure.’ Such a
response will make you uptight and damage your confidence and therefore your
ability to make contributions in future meetings.

A bit of cognitive training can result in a different response to the same
situation. ‘Oh, that’s disappointing that my boss didn’t like that idea.
Fortunately, I have other more popular ideas.’ By asserting this positive
appraisal and rationalising the situation it is easier to avoid stress.

Employers are increasingly recognising the importance of a happy and healthy
workforce and making the workspace more conducive to employee needs. Chilled
water and air-conditioning are some examples of this.

But given that ‘stress’ has overtaken backache as the leading cause of time
off work, it could be that employers are not acting in a merely philanthropic
manner. In fact, stress falls under the remit of health and safety as an
occupational hazard and so employers have a duty of care, which they must be
seen to address. A failure to do so could land them in a tribunal — and that
could be very stressful.

John Perry is a senior consultant at The Aziz Corporation
and runs a series of management courses designed to help individuals and
groups deal with stress

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