By Judy Martin
Special to InMilitaryEducation.com
Right to the point. “Work stress is a major problem,” David Ballard PhD, told me recently in an e-mail exchange. He heads up the American Psychological Association’s Psychologically Healthy Workplace Program.
Workplace stress is not news. But how companies are handling the issue is worth a gander. As I wrote in a recent Forbes post, a recent APA study found only 58 percent of employees said they have the resources necessary to manage stress. Furthermore, a 2012 SHRM (Society for Human Resource Management) survey found only 11 percent of organizations have specific stress reduction programs in place.
“Even those organizations that do have stress management programs generally focus on individual-level training and resources to help stressed-out employees,” says Ballard, “but they neglect preventive and organizational-level approaches that may be more effective in the long run.”
Your Brain on Stress
With more than forty percent of American workers reporting chronic workplace stress, the long-term impact of stress and its influence on the human creative condition and business can be detrimental, says Rick Hanson PhD, a California based neuropsychologist and author of Just One Thing: Developing a Buddha Brain One Simple Practice at a Time.
“As ten-thousand studies have shown, when you are chronically stressed, you’re less able to be at your best. Particularly when you’re talking about a knowledge economy which really places a high premium on creativity,” Hanson told me via Skype.
Chronic stress degrades a long list of capabilities with regard to creativity and innovation, notes Hanson. It’s harder to think outside of the box, nimbleness and dexterity take a hit, and the response to sudden change is more difficult to manage. Hanson has been examining the impact of stress on the brain and well-being, while working in the trenches in corporate America and as the co-founder of The Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom.
Hanson explains, stress is like fine sand being drizzled into the brain. It might keep working, but if you dump enough sand in there, it’ll freeze up at some point. Beyond heading into the deep freeze, he says neuroscience is now showing us that the cumulative consequences of stress can be a dire thorn in the side of business innovation.
Your Brain at Work
“Even a small amount of stress is noisy in the brain,” says leadership consultant, David Rock, the author of Your Brain at Work and the co-founder of the NeuroLeadership Institute. The organization partnered on a survey of 6000 workers, and found that only ten percent of people do their best thinking at work. Expanded technology, multitasking and a competitively demanding (or threatening) company culture, can add to the noise in the brain which crushes creativity.
“Threat makes you productive, but not necessarily effective. It can make you productive if you don’t have to think broadly, widely or deeply,” says Rock. “A threat response, which we might think of as stress, increases motor function, while it decreases perception, cognition and creativity.”
Ultimately, on the surface, stress might seem a good kick starter for productivity. But getting the creative juices flowing has more to do with the engagement of the employee and his or her disposition, notes Rock.
“What neuroscience is telling us, is that creativity and engagement are essentially about making people happier,” explains Rock who adds, “It’s what is called, a “toward state” in the brain.” In that “state,” Rock explains, workers feel curious, open minded, happier and interested in what they are doing.
A huge component of creating that state is to quiet the mind, and that means reducing stress. Rock discusses the neuroscience behind stress reduction here in my recent post at WorkLifeNation.com, Neuroscience Might Be New “it-strategy” to Boost Employee Creativity.
In my experience covering workplace issues for well over a decade, stress management programs in most companies, if they exist at all, are more of an ancillary stepchild in the wellness agenda. As David Ballard PhD told me, workplace flexibility, mental healthcare coverage and on-site fitness offerings certainly help to reduce stress, but it’s not enough. Perhaps a company will do more to help employees better manage stress, if the end-game is a more creative and engaged employee.
What do you think? Should companies be doing more to help employees manage stress?