VITAL SIGNS: Getting a grip on stress

VITAL SIGNS: Getting a grip on stress - The wonderful, Californian thing about stress is the language. It's gorgeous, I promise you. Stress managers - and there's a lovely dynamic cod-business kind of handle, for a start - can give you a stress audit, arr

by PETER YORK, in his persona as Peter Wallis, is managing directorof consultants SRU e-mail:
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The wonderful, Californian thing about stress is the language. It's gorgeous, I promise you. Stress managers - and there's a lovely dynamic cod-business kind of handle, for a start - can give you a stress audit, arrange stress workshops and awareness programmes. Stress is airport management book territory, which means career opportunities, markets for goods and services, a shadowy Alternative Empire of kindly folk making it better in the world of work.

But despite the business-speak, stress-people get seriously vague when it comes to definitions. What is stress? Who gets it and when? Was stress invented in 1972 by one of those pains of American doctors with important middle initials (Arthur B Clarke MD and Leslie J Berkowitz MD) in a ground-breaking paperback best-seller, or is it a real thing? Is it a new name for an old-fashioned condition such as unhappiness or overwork? Or is it peculiar to our uniquely pressured times, with their long-haul holidays, stock options, office dress codes, and vending machines with mock cappuccino?

An old-style British response to stress-talk is to say wartime things like 'buck up' or 'pull yourself together' or to suggest strong tea or vigorous walking. Another, younger group loves the combination of new science and deep feeling. They like the simile of metal fatigue caused by constant pounding, and they love the therapy side of things, the opportunity to talk about themselves. And the new, Big Brother generation of managers likes the idea of being stressed out because it shows how much of life's riches (ie, interesting work) they've accumulated.

The scientific stuff focuses on adrenaline and the flight-or-fight syndrome.

In the wild, dressed in your bearskin, you're positively bathed in adrenaline when a major challenge comes along, and it helps your fight-or-flee. But in modern managerial settings you don't usually do either, so those stimulating secretions congeal all over you, firing you up with frustration - that is what tests the mettle.

There's something in those medical parables, the idea that stress isn't just about hard work or unhappiness, but about conflict, confusion and frustration. City bus drivers get fantastically stressed, rural ones less so. It's about the anxiety generated by multi-tasking and balancing priorities.

It's about meeting contradictory demands from a CEO and board who are anything but transparent. It's about not knowing where to start and it's about papering over the cracks when you want to do much more. It's even about the portfolio life, if you haven't built the right defences against expert demands on your time.

Industry committees, quangos and charities are experts in extracting every last minute of networking access to corporate slush-funds and your specialist expertise. That's their job. But the job of the manager who goes portfolio is to negotiate a clear remit with every organisation - down to when in the day you can be called.

If the definitions of stress are hazy, so are the 'management' techniques.

They're endless and range from touchy-feely therapies of the massage and aromatherapy variety to much more confrontational 'what's the worst thing that could happen?' sessions. There's individual de-stressing and corporate de-stressing. Corporate de-stressing is all about the argument that British business loses hundreds of millions a year to stress. And worse, there's the compensation culture.

People who feel they've suffered intolerable stress are starting to make big claims, so the stress-manager's sell is full of references to court payouts.

Corporate stressbusters work in those familiar areas of team-building and bond-making. They know that if people only connect they can offload a lot of stressed feelings. This approach is fine for peer problems but it doesn't unscramble complexity and it doesn't answer the unexplained, contradictory demands of superiors. It doesn't deal with the compromises people make to get the jobs they think they want.

A more root-and-branch approach would be to acknowledge just how many people who ostensibly have a choice - because they've got skills, resources, the right experience and educational credentials - got trapped into jobs and routines they're wildly unsuited too. Instead of all the voodoo, distraction, laying on of hands, group negotiation workshops and double-digit process, they be better off with a regular session with a headhunter's psychological assessment team.

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