Stress is on the rise. Studies show that stress has risen more than 20% over the past several decades, and 75% of people report experiencing symptoms of stress over the past year:
Nowhere is stress more prevalent than in the workplace. In her TED-style AIIR Summit Talk, AIIR senior coach Natalie Schürmann, MSc. (AIIR | Brussels) examines the effects of stress on our health and productivity, and shares strategies to rewire the way that we experience stress.
Okay. Well, first of all, thank you so much for having me today. I’m very excited to talk about To Stress or Not to Stress. And before I even go into the topic, I actually wanted to share why I put this question on here. Some of you might ask yourself why on earth as she put that question on here when we’re talking about such an important topic as stress and well-being.
It started as a kind of light joke. And I thought to myself, well, you know everybody’s familiar with the line, ‘To be or not to be’ I think, and for those who are really big fans of Shakespeare, they probably know very well that Hamlet, when he actually stood up on scene in Act 3 said, well, ‘To be or not to be,’ it was when he was in a very distressed moment, because he lost his father, and he didn’t know if he could cope with any more grief.
So I thought that’s quite a nice parallel in a sense like to go to the extreme when you stress a lot. And, actually, I will share a few figures in a moment. It can actually bring a lot of illness to people. So there’s something about actually how can you stress less? How can you do something about it? And to what extent do you just become a victim of it?
Now the next point on this is like — and if I think about the deer in the headlight, that’s what comes to mind for me when I think about stress. And if you look at this picture, the reason I actually chose it is because there’s something much more powerful about stress control than we actually think. So in my practice, I’ve learned with many leaders that I coached that actually, you can, I would say, in 80 percent of the cases, completely unwire the way that you see and feel stress. And this not a talk about neuroscience and clinical psychology, because you are all much more equipped than I am, I’m sure, for this. I’m an occupational psychologist. But what it actually is it’s about sharing experiences that I have noticed, and I have adopted with the leaders I coach.
And one of the key questions is ‘To what extent can we influence this?’ And there are five topics or five, let’s say areas that I would like to share in a minute that are really big influences that I’ve learned that you can do something about in terms of how you react to stress factors.
First of all, let me give you a very brief, let’s say, an overview of what actually what I mean was stress because my understanding of stress is probably quite different to maybe some others.
So to be very clear, when we talk about stress, it’s really about to what extent do I feel that I can cope with the demands that are put on me? And when I say, ‘the demand put on me,’ it’s not just some external factors, but it’s also the experiences we have. So when I talk about this, I really talk about let’s say the positive stress, which is well, you know, you have something to do, a deadline or whatever it is, and there’s some kind of light level of adrenaline that makes you go a little bit more focused. And that’s positive stress.
But there’s a moment, and that’s the curve you see which is turning to negative stress. And that is very different for each of us as we know. But what is interesting is that stress in a way is very much a perception. We all know that there is no such thing as stress. There is only a factor or there is an element, an external reality that we perceive as such or not.
So as coaches, what is very, very important, I think, I learned as well, is that in the negative stress area is where we can make a huge difference. If I share with you in a minute some of the figures that I’ve just heard a few weeks ago when I was presenting at the European Parliament of what’s actually stress cost to organizations, you will be surprised. And I think what we can do and why I wanted to have this particular topic is as coaches are that we can really really make a difference, in terms of how we integrate this reality of stress into our coaching. Even if we coach an executive, and he or she has a completely different development goal in reducing stress levels, I think there’s something we can do about testing whether they are stress or not. And this is something I wanted to share with you in a minute.
So I am talking about stress prevention versus stress when it’s already too late. I don’t think necessary that is my particular area, and I don’t think that when we do a classic, let’s say, executive leadership coaching, this is where we necessarily work. But I think in the prevention, meaning ensuring that we actually look for the symbols and understand what the symbols and the signs are when we’re coaching somebody and whether he or she is stressed is very important.
So the financial cost, just to give it a cost for organizational health, is a $300 billion U.S. a yearly. And this is some figure the World Health Organization has published. And, however, there are very more interesting facts behind this.
If you think about an organization, they are actually spending, I think, in the U.S. more or less about $200 billion in health-related stress costs per year and about, I would say, $20 billion in the EU. And this is something that I heard last week from one of the heads of cabinets. And this is why the EU, for example, is now funding huge projects for work settings on how to release this stress from people.
When I say engagement for activity costs, I think we all know that when leaders are stressed and when employees are stressed, they, obviously, are working less productively, but they’re also much more, I would say, yeah, I think that it has an effect on their personal life as well. So there is much more to the cost than the cost of the organization. There’s a cost to society as well.
And when I talk about ‘cost of leadership,’ — I don’t even know if it does exist or not. But this term felt very real — a cost of leadership is to what extent are the leaders actually helping or hindering, let’s say, the health of the organization when they themselves are in survival mode?
So I think the key is when we are coaching leaders, and regardless of the development goals that we are working about, I think the key is really to look at how can we help these leaders to be less taken by the stress, step out of it, and get a distance to their own situations so that they can engage followers in such a different way and spread the health in the organization.
The emotional cost to individuals and society, I don’t know what the price to that is, but we do know that our young leaders, for example, so I think about high potentials that we’ve coached that are really like, let’s say, the future of company, they are already so stressed. The youth stress is so high at the moment. The suicide rates amongst young male especially youth has doubled in the last year. So how can we expect those young leaders to thrive in an organization if they are also so stressed about most things, actually, especially social media?
So a very high level. I mean these are external stress factors that are mixed between research, but also, I think, all of us have noticed, but in particular in my last five to 10 years coaching a lot of leaders and teams, the change at work and home — when I say ‘change’ at work and home it’s really something about transition.
So the transition could be something very drastic, something very, very big. So, for example, you lose a family member or there’s a divorce or something like this or smaller changes. So, for example, number one has been identified as when you change the location when the whole family has to unsettle themselves and go somewhere else. It seems an easy thing. It seems something that everybody does, but at the end of the day, it’s one of the key stress factors that leaders face.
Job transition is not the only transition within the company, but also moving roles outside or being moved. That’s number two. The third is what I call personal and personality conflict. So it’s two things. Personality, obviously, plays a big role in the way that we deal with stress, but it’s also a personal conflict in terms of values.
So I don’t know how many of you have that experience that when you, let’s say you push teams or also individuals, that, in fact, often they cannot be authentic or feel they cannot be authentic. Because if they are authentic, and they are set in an organizational setting, which is quite, let’s say a bit more conservative maybe or a little bit more on the performance-driven and a little less human, they probably feel they have to hide behind the mask. And that is one of the key stress factors for leaders that I’ve experienced when they cannot be who they really want to be. So that tension between authenticity, being an authentic person at work and still having that image is a very important stress factor.
The navigating political complexity. It’s — when we say ‘political complexity,’ it always sounds a little negative, and, in fact, what it actually means is there’s so much going on, as we know, so many changes in the organization, reshuffling, reorganizing, just because companies are struggling, as we are all, to kind of be as agile and as fast as possible, given what’s going on in the world. And I think the political landscape is part of a leader’s essential toolkit. And some leaders have the opposite, as I said before. They actually are so authentic or so, in fact, in line with who they are, that they actually are challenged by being a little bit more giving and a little bit more open and a little bit more reaching out, when, in fact, they don’t feel like doing it.
So that’s actually a little bit the opposite than what I said earlier. So there are two things. One is how authentic can I be, and can I afford to be authentic or is there a threat to me as a leader. And the other side is more about how can I actually be a little bit more flexible and a little bit more out there and make network connections with people that I actually don’t really like. But I have to do it because it’s important to the role and the role and in my, yeah, position.
And then too many demands. So, these are more what I call external factors that are, again, and again, coming up as red threats. And I’ve are actually also researched throughout all these years that I’ve done the coaching with people that these are coming up as a kind of, I would say, a repetitive pattern if you want.
The five resilience factors. Now, obviously, we’ve talked about what stress means. It’s this ability that kind of — we have an ability to cope, and each of us has a different one. And we have a perception of we can’t cope, and that causes stress and that prolonged stress is what then can maybe lead to illness, anxiety, et cetera.
There are, however, these five factors that are really important. And this is where want to get a little bit more narrowed down to what we can be more alert to is these are factors that not only are researched across a lot of different literature — and I’m very happy to share more of these references later on — that is absolutely critical in building the coping skills that I just mentioned earlier.
So regardless of your personality and whether you are more prone to stress or less prone to stress, there are these factors that when you address them in a rigorous way, you probably double your chances, let’s say, to be more strong in the face of adversity by a hundred percent.
So the — I just mentioned them very briefly, so you know what I’m talking about.
The personality and preference are obvious, I think. As I said, it’s not just your proneness to stress, but it’s also things like are you a little bit more somebody who prefers to get the energy from, you know, a little bit more of reflection? Are you more of an extrovert? All those things that we know from Hogans and older personality assessments that we actually use is really about so to what extent am I operating in alignment with what I like doing? What I feel energized by, and what not. So that’s one factor. So we know that as coaches especially with AIIR, we have this very great methodology where we are having this assessment part, and we, obviously, try to understand where can we help this individual to be even greater than they are? But there’s also something to be alert and look in those assessments and see where can I see — what are the strengths of this person, and what is this person struggling with? And I think personality and preference is a key factor to be aware of.
Relationships and support is really to what extent do people, whether as leaders or employees, to what extent do they actually build relations and are able to reach out? So people who tend to be a little bit more self-reliant are much more prone to get stressed faster.
External realities are really the real reality. So what I mean with that is, you know, we can way we are — stress is just something that we create in our heads, but there’s also a limit to it. There are some things that are truly more stressful than others, and we know that. And so, I think what is important is to understand — do an assessment also about the realities of that leader that we are coaching and in terms of what type of culture are they operating in, is this culture particularly against a personality preference and all that we do naturally anyway?
All I’m saying is to be a little more are of it whilst we coach somebody because we might be coaching them on something else, but in reality, if these five areas covered well, then they — it certainly will help them to be much stronger.
The physical focus is to what extent have people actually really spending time om physical activities. And it doesn’t have to be sports and such necessarily. But is their mind actually really open to doing physical activity as part of their everyday life? It could be walking, whatever it is. The less physical you are, the more stressed you become. And that’s obvious for everybody, but it’s something we might not necessarily assess when we actually coach a leader at the beginning.
So all I’m saying is these five factors, if we can somehow — and I go to the next slide in a minute — get a bit more systematic about kind of building them as a parts of into our interactions as the — from the beginning, we might be able to influence the level of stress this person experiences, if nothing else, as a side product of what we do.
So inner self is about the mindset belief system and self-concept, and we all know, I think, more than I do, you know that the inner self, how you think about yourself, your attitude, have you got a learning mindset or have you got the more fixed mindset. These are things that are almost more important than the personality because these can be learned. And that’s what we work with every day as coaches. The more you can influence a negative mindset to become positive, and the more chances are that this person will be much more strong in the face of adversity.
We can see that the critical factors, to go a little more in-depth, to build resilience is the level of self-awareness, to sum up, so to what extent is the coachee, the person, the leader, whoever it is we have in front that we are coaching, to what extent are they aware of what triggers them or what stresses them? If they are stressed, are they admitting it? Do they really know it? That’s one important factor. How they think about events and stimuli. In other words, are they more negative towards this, are they more catastrophizing? Have they got a tendency to think everything can go wrong? How they react to it is very different. It’s the emotional regulations. So once you know what triggers you, then there’s a whole process of how you actually can help yourself to build your emotions around that and maybe manage them.
The physical well-being, I just mentioned it earlier, is one other factor. And the learning and positive mindset that we discussed a minute ago.
So the leveraging strength is one point I wanted to really focus briefly on is we focus a lot on whatever a person needs to change or improve, but it’s very important, especially when somebody has a negative mindset to highlight those positive strengths. And the more people have leveraged strengths, the more it’s actual research that they are much more prone to being stronger when things don’t go the way they are supposed to.
Willingness and openness to share and trust. And we know that through many personality assessments, we can actually really see the kind of a proneness one has towards trusting others. The less you trust, the more you struggle again when stress hits you, because you are not — you’re basically relying on others. Self-reliance will ever help to help you through stressful times. And then support systems and relationships like we said earlier.
So these are the five areas. So what I’m saying now going to the coaching is if we can kind of do a quick diagnosis on this, and the way that I sometimes do this it is let actually rate themselves and ask people to rate themselves. How do they think at the moment they’re doing on these five areas? And you can see that very quickly because people will notice that actually, they have completely neglected the physical activity. They have actually completely maybe a different view on the external realities, or they can give you actually their view on what the external reality is which will amplify how they feel. So it’s about a quick pulse survey of what is it that’s going on and where and which of these five areas the greatest, let’s say Achille’s heel for that person.
So in essence, building the resilience, if we can help people to build their resilience, the mental and physical one, if we can uncover the authenticity, and if we can expand their learning agility in a nutshell, these are the three things that we, as coaches, can do to help people to be much more, I would say, fulfilled at the end. Because it’s about fulfillment, right? And it’s about much bigger things than only the coaching we do. It’s about helping the world and society to become much more happy, fulfilled, harmonious. At the moment, I think we can all do with more of that. And it’s much more, I would say broader this topic than only have — only cost to organizations and only coaching. I think if each of us does a little bit more towards it, either directly or indirectly, we can really help to change the world.
And so, finally what I want to show you is that from the deer in the headlight, I think, hopefully, most of them can become lions that lie under the shade of the tree and relax.
So I — basically my call for action will be that if we can all think differently or be more alert or be more aware of this whilst we coach, we can really make a huge difference towards an epidemic that’s really going across the world, which is stress. And it’s having a lot of illness and a lot of negative effects at the moment on society. So thank you.
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