Archive for April, 2012

From dusk till dawn: why managers need a stress management survival kit.

“Mens sana in corpore sano”; often translated as “a sound mind in a sound body”

 Latin quotation derived from Satire X of the Roman poet Juvenal (late 1st and early 2nd century AD)


Stress has been called the “health epidemic of the 21st century” by the World Health Organization. But how can we define stress? What are the differences from one person to the other and what are the possible impacts and consequences? In a management position, responsibilities increase, so does stress; what are the main stress factors for the managers and their teams in our today’s society and how can they cope? This post aims at providing some answers to the above questions, using results of various psychology studies as well as direct observations and lessons learned from the field.

Download a one-page executive summary here (PDF or JPEG format): Handling Stress in the Workplace



A simple, practical definition of stress

Among the many researches on stress, a usual reference is the work of Professor Lazarus in 1966 and beyond. In a nutshell, his study reveals that the stress generated by a given situation is simply equivalent to the evaluation of the situation by the individual himself. This evaluation, which is totally subjective, can be summarized by answering the two following questions:

  • Is this situation /event a problem or a threat?
  • Do I have enough resources to face it?

The higher the ratio between the answers to those two questions is, the more important the level of stress experienced by the individual is.

It has also been demonstrated that this double evaluation is influenced by three types of factors proper to each individual:

  1. psychological factors: certain personality types are more sensible to stress factors than others (for example, a person with an overall positive mindset may be less tempted to see a given situation as a problem)
  2. sociological factors: social conditions have been proven to be a factor influencing our reaction to stress (for instance, a single parent in charge of kids working part-time will very probably react differently to the same stress factors in her work environment compared to a just-graduated male colleague working full-time in the same company)
  3. biological factors: gender, age, health conditions (eg our evaluation of an event can be considerably affected by a lack of sleep)

For a practical illustration of this definition, go to the exercise 1 of  the “practice”  section of this post.

The impact and  consequence of stress in the workplace

Even if the stress can be seen as a stimulant boosting the individual performance in certain cases or can increase some of our cognitive capacities like memory when, among other conditions, it is timely synchronized with an emotionally charged event (Marian Joëls, 2006), all clinical surveys converge to say that, on the long-run, a lasting exposure to stress has damaging consequences on an employee. Those consequences can be classified in 4 categories (Poirot, 2004):

  1. psychological consequences: increased number of depressions, anxiety disorders and psychological distress cases
  2. behavioral consequences: increased aggressiveness, higher drug and alcohol consumption, higher tendency to social withdrawal, tendency to become disorganized and a decrease in decision-making, concentration and learning capacities
  3. physical consequences: increased back pain, higher risk of cardiovascular trouble, perturbation of the immune system and/or of the digestive system, tensed muscles, difficulties to sleep, appetite disorders, skin problems…
  4. organizational consequence in the workplace: lower commitment toward the company, decreased creativity in work activities, lower collaboration and solidarity toward co-workers, inferior vigilance when executing tasks, increase in the intention to leave the company and higher number of unexpected short-term leaves or sick leaves.

No need to comment further on the potential impacts to yourself and to your business when affected by one or several of the above consequences!

Stress factors in the workplace: how are the managers and their teams exposed?

Regardless of the work environment, it is to recognize that our modern society contributes to generate stress through the following factors (Lefebvre and Poirot, 2011):

  • disappearance of the large institutions that played a structuring role for the individual (like Church): everyone is free to invent its own life and has to invent its own life
  • obligation of performance pushed by the modern media (beauty, professional success…)
  • frequent mobility disrupting the family
  • time compression (real-time flow, zero-latency expectation…)
  • lower engagement toward sustainable long-term sharing relations (accelerated by the development of virtual reality and social media)

Derived from the above list (and in addition to it), it can be observed that managers and their teams often have to cope with the following stress factors within their companies:

  • a constant increase of the expectation in terms of business performance: “always do more with less”, which can translate in an exhausting over-investment of the manager, potentially leading to burn out (long hours and excessive overtime preventing to step back and appreciate new perspectives, frequent business trips and near-24/7 availability through smartphone leading to mental and physical fatigue, daily priority switching and impossibility to take vacations in order to reach objectives generating a decrease in terms of creativity and a loss of motivation…)
  • a management paradox: field managers are requested to manage better (by taking the necessary time to coach and grow their teams through relevant meetings and one-on-one sessions, conduct and document the annual -and intermediate- performance reviews, support talent management programs, follow performance improvement plan for weaker employees through regular checkpoints, define SMARTER objectives and ensure the feedback sessions…) while facing an increasing pressure in getting operational results being delivered at lower cost and in always shorter delays. In other words, managers are under a constant pressure to arbitrate between a short-term result and a long-term human investment, between growing their teams or doing themselves in order to answer faster changing priorities or new urgencies…
  • a pressure of being the reference: as a natural part of their role, managers are expected to represent the company values and model the related positive behaviors. Under constant scrutiny from their own boss, peers and teams, this can turn into an important stress factor for new managers who fear to fail or who lack self-confidence and who often only receive little support or guidance in their new role to help them becoming this expected reference.
  • a loneliness paradox: at the same time that, by definition, managers have to interact with many counterparts other than their direct teams (other teams and their leaders, other departments through transversal exercises, shared services…), they are often left on their own to learn how to do so in an efficient manner. Moreover, in certain companies, field managers can also feel a strong disconnect from an upper senior management that takes strategic decisions (new services offer, product decommission, organization revamp, integration activities following m&a…) but that provides almost no support for the operational execution of these decisions. It is then completely up to those first line managers to identify the best way to transform the new company missions into a tangible result… and to convince their teams!
  • an autonomy paradox: more and more, managers are required by their own managers to demonstrate real intrapreneurship abilities and are often expected to run autonomously the show while, at the same time, the control of their actions, performance and outcomes are getting tighter… (“You are autonomous but I control you”)

Obviously list is not exhaustive and many other stress factors generated by both our modern way of living and by the corporations we work for could for sure be added…

How to detect you are running off-limits? How to cope?

When suddenly placed under stressful conditions, our body will react to regulate the stress and come back to its natural balance following a principle called homeostasis. If we refer to our ancestors back to prehistorical times, when facing an immediate danger like a wild animal or other predators, the only way to react in order to reduce the stress was either to escape or to fight. In either cases, muscles needed to be ready by getting the necessary glucose and oxygen transported by the blood; this still explains for example why, when put under stress, one feels his heart accelerating, blood pressure increases, muscles get tensed… Although the stress factors have obviously changed through the ages (I tend to believe that there are no more wild animals in our modern cities or at our workplace; this is though arguable!), our reactions have inherited from those two ancient behaviors and stress specialists now classifies coping behaviors under the two following categories:

  1. the adaptive avoidance coping behavior: one faces stress by trying to reduce the emotions generated by a stressful situation. (In its extreme form, especially in case of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder syndrome, this can lead to social withdrawn or denial as maladaptive coping technique)
  2. the constructive problem-solving behavior: one tries to eradicate stress factors to avoid facing stress

Unless the situation is totally uncontrollable (9.11 in the US, 3.11 for Japan…), stress specialists agree to say that constructive problem-solving techniques will give the best results because the individual acts directly to take control over the stress factors which logically brings a feeling of control, key to a good psychological balance.

In more practical terms, let’s have a look to some proven coping techniques. Those techniques can easily be distributed in one of the above two categories.

  • know yourself:
    • listen to your body and read the warning signals that it may be sending: have you recently experienced difficulties to sleep, started to smoke (again), put on weight, had compulsive needs for junk food or alcohol, experienced headaches or shoulder/back pain? Analyze the conditions under which those symptoms have occurred and identify whether these are linked to specific situations or stress factors,
    • work out your Emotional Intelligence (EI) muscle! The emotional intelligence is frequently defined as the ability to identify, understand, control and use the emotions of oneself or others. The psychologist Goleman (1998) classifies the emotional intelligence under 4 categories: the self-awareness (ability to identify and understand one’s own emotions), the self-management (ability to control and adjust one’s own emotions in an appropriate manner), the social awareness (ability to feel, understand and react to other’s emotions, to be empathic, to achieve social integration) and the relationship management (ability to inspire, influence, grow the others as well as the ability to create links, manage conflicts and foster collaboration). In your personal case, use your self-awareness to identify when and why you get angry, upset, aggressive, depressive, sad… Can you figure out what has triggered those negative emotions? How can you use those constructively or turn them positively?
    • once you know how to read the symptoms telling you that you get over-stressed, it becomes easier to prevent running off-limits and risk a burn-out. Common techniques to use when those symptoms occur include relaxation, meditation, breathing exercises, yoga, mental visualization of positive images or any other well-being methods that you find appropriate. Taking a regular guilt-free rest to explore new hobbies, to spend time with your friends and families, to play, to sleep and to do regular physical exercise is also a very efficient way of releasing stress.
    • socialize: under difficult, stressful conditions, it is key to avoid isolation and look for social support from friends, family, colleagues or even specialists if required.
  • know your limits:
    •  obviously, you can only know your limits once you’ve reached or exceeded those… The self-observation methods mentioned above will hopefully help you to know when you’ve reached the breaking point without going too far. You can also try to answer to questions about things you cannot do any more or that you do not want to do any more and why.
    • distance yourself from your success and failures and analyze them to avoid falling into hubris. Many companies have seen modern Icarus burnt by success… (In Greek mythology, Icarus attempts to escape from Crete by means of wings that his father constructed from feathers and wax. He ignored instructions not to fly too close to the sun, and the melting wax caused him to fall into the sea where he drowned.  – source Wikipedia -)
    • once you know your limits, learn how to say “no”! When you know that you are requested to perform activities that will put you (and consequently your teams and organization) at risk, first learn to say “no” to yourself then learn to say “no” to the others, explaining the reason and always proposing alternative solutions. A good manager should always appreciate your honesty and ability to share about your own limits… Obviously, model the same behavior with your teams! Saying “no” and pointing your limits while proposing alternative solutions will also be a precious help for yourself and for your manager to identify the necessary resources and means to support your future growth.
  • manage the boss in your head:
    • in a performance-driven society, managers are requested to set their targets to reach excellence. If this is indeed an healthy direction for an organization (nobody can disapprove setting excellence as a target), this can translate though at a personal level, especially for junior managers, into setting one’s own internal expectations to a too high level.
    • therefore, it is important to regularly revisit your own beliefs and reset your internal expectations to the right level. Each time you tell to yourself “I have to…”, “I must…”, “I’m for sure expected to…”, take a few minutes to assess the reality and rational behind those internal thoughts. Learn how to manage the boss in your head that tells you to be perfect; nobody is perfect and a manager is neither a robot nor a super-hero!
    • Think positive: when put on a new assignment or a difficult task, take it as an opportunity to learn. Identify the risks and areas where you may need support; provide your best effort and once over run the lessons learned (be it a success or  a failure). Recognize and celebrate your own success to support your self-esteem. In case of failure, be fair about the causes and figure out what you could have done differently for next time.
  • plan and prepare:
    • recent psychology studies (eg studies from Psychology Professor Epstein) have revealed that planning and preparing your day, week, months… and anticipating the potential stress factors remains the most efficient means to fight stress.
    • plan your day (you can use modern time management tools to support this practice) blocking slots for your free-time and slots allowing you to step back, plan your holidays (holidays are to be considered as an healthy organization sustainability check exercise by managers: can the team run without their manager during 1 day, 1 week, 1 month, 1 quarter? The answer to this question will give you an indication of the maturity and sustainability level of your organization) and make long-term projects for your life! Planning will also help you to ensure that you keep a fair work-life balance.
    • spend time to prepare thoroughly any specific high-stress event (a difficult client meeting, a job interview, a public presentation); this will increase the level of control and self-confidence and will consequently reduce the level of stress and anxiety.
    • make sure to reduce distraction and attention catchers (mail, smartphone…) when focusing on important activities in order to make the best use of your time and to achieve higher quality outputs. As a simple recommendation, you should plan some attention-catcher-free times in your day to reduce the unhealthy real-time dependency over-consuming cognitive resources. Doing so is another exercise to confirm that your organization or team can run without you being available, an indicator of sustainability. If this is not the case, think of what you would need to put in place to decrease the dependency of your organization on yourself.

Any lessons learned from the field?

Looking up, down , left and right, the best managers I’ve known in terms of stress management are the ones who:

  • cope with their own stress factors, making sure that they keep enough resources to step back regularly in order to define the long-term action plan for their teams, taking time to share transparently the company vision and strategy despite business urgencies or other pressure from upper management,
  • use their EI social awareness to understand each of their team members and their potential stress factors in order to use them for better output; “Know when one staff is stretched and motivated for it” versus “know when one staff is stressed to his limit”. This includes the ability to filter the upper management pressure and pass only the necessary pressure to own staff,
  • spot the stress-generator toxic behaviors such as excessive focused criticism, discrimination, information retaining, physical or mental harassment, on-purpose staff isolation… towards and within their teams and act on them,
  • know when to be tough and when to reward outputs of their team members (be it through specific celebration, personal management recognition acts or financial compensation)
  • openly discuss about stress with their staffs, recognize that humans are humans after all, ie prone to errors, mistakes, fatigue… and not robots or super-heroes (including themselves), work on identifying stress factors at work with their teams and share around possible coping techniques,
  • engage with senior management and partner actively with the Human Resources teams to define and deploy strategies such as tele-commuting, flex work… that will help creating a positive work environment and reducing unnecessary stress.


  • exercise 1 – Stress; a subjective perception: imagine that your morning train is running late… Consequently, you expect to be in the office 35 minutes late; this will make you 5 minutes late for your first meeting of the day. This meeting is a project review with one of your key customer.
    •  Case 1: You are a young successful engineer with PMI certificates who has been handling this type of projects for the past 3 years within the company. Your managers completely relies on you and so far you have always been able to deliver on your promises; you appreciate that you have been largely rewarded by your management for your past performances. Your success even brought some of famous recruiters to propose you some other opportunities at customers and competitors. The day prior to the meeting, you had a complete review with the full project team and had a specific briefing with your senior staff member backing you up on that project. You have checked and confirmed that all materials are accurate and ready to share. You also know that your back-up is already at the office.
  1. Is this situation a problem or a threat? Evaluate this question on a scale from 1 to 5; 1 being a situation not seen as a problem, 5 being a high-level threat
  2. Do I have enough resources to face it? Evaluate this question on a scale from 1 to 5; 1 being  a perceived completely uncontrolled situation, 5 being a case where your experience, the context will allow you to control the situation peacefully
    • Case 2: You are a single parent with  a kid. You have just moved from a Service Desk role to a Project Management role in this new company and are still in probation period. You are running your first project with this key customer. Your manager made it clear that the success of this project was one of the criterion to pass the probation period. You had to leave the company earlier on the day before the meeting because your kid went sick and therefore you could not run the project review with the project members. Unfortunately, you had to wake up at several occasions during the night to calm down your kid running high fever.
  1. Is this situation a problem or a threat? Evaluate this question on a scale from 1 to 5; 1 being a situation not seen as a problem, 5 being a high-level threat
  2. Do I have enough resources to face it? Evaluate this question on a scale from 1 to 5; 1 being  a perceived completely uncontrolled situation, 5 being a case where your experience, the context will allow you to control the situation peacefully
    • Conclusion: for both case 1 and case 2, divide the result of the answer to question 1 by the result of the answer to question 2. What is the ratio? Link the result to the stress definition presented at the beginning of this post, what can you conclude? Obviously those 2 cases are extreme, feel free to explore mixed situations based on the above parameters… Also run the same exercise for some of your personal cases
  • exercise 2 – know yourself: in a first step, answer the below self-assessment questions without prior thinking or specific reflexion. Then come back on each of the answers and analyze them. What can you learn about yourself?
    • In my work today, what gives me the most pleasure is …
    • In the past 12 months, the best and the worst periods of my work life have been …
    • What are the things that I do but that I don’t like in my job today?
    • What would trigger me changing my job?
    • What am I ready to sacrifice for my job? What am I ready not to sacrifice to my job?
    • In the past 12 months, I already had the feeling that I could no longer cope with my role and responsibilities; true or false?
    • I have the feeling of under-performing where in fact my manager is satisfied with my performance; true or false?
    • I have already said “no” when what I was requested to do was exceeding my physical/mental capacities; true or false?
    • In the past quarter, I have seen myself very aggressive with colleagues or family in several occasions; true or false?
    • I have had some unusual headaches and back pain in the past quarter; true or false?
    • recently I have increased my consumption of alcohol, cigarettes, junk food, drugs; true or false?
    • The things that upset me the most at work are …
    • I’m the least comfortable at work when …
  • exercise 3 – the manager as a reliable stress management advisor for their teams: The below questions aim at helping you identifying the type of support you provide to your teams in eradicating the unnecessary stress factors. Answer them. What can you conclude? Are there any actions that you could take to make the situation even better?
    • I know each one of my team members and what causes stress and anxiety for them; true or false?
    • I spend time to share regularly the company and teams missions, the progress and the lessons learned from the recent experiences with my teams; true or false?
    • All my direct reports have clear objectives that I reevaluate regularly with them; true or false?
    • I support my team members when they request for holidays and even encourage everybody in my team to take vacations on a regular basis?
    • I know when and how to challenge my team to get a greater outcome but I also know when to reduce the pressure?
    • I celebrate the success of the teams and support my teams in running lessons learned for both success and failures; true or false?
    • I know all the possible work facilities proposed by my company (flex time, tele-commuting, part-time…) and advertise them regularly to my teams?
    • I have a forum in place where my teams can exchange about their difficulties and find constructive ways to overcome them
    • I recognize when I have done a mistake in front of my teams?
    • I have frequent discussions with my team members in order to figure out what they like or not in my way of managing; true or false?
    • If I identify that the objectives provided by the upper management are too much of a stretch for my department, I raise the point and propose various approaches to answer the problem?

So What?

Looking around us, it is common sense to admit that an overdose of stress and pressure always end up in negative results for the person affected, be it at a physical level or at a mental one. Unfortunately, sources of stress have increased in our modern societies (pressure of the performance and perfection, real-time environment, loss of references…). If the sensibility to those stress factors varies from one individual to the other, there are nevertheless common practices to cope with it: a good work-life balance and a healthy life style associated to regular free-time spent on social activities with family, friends or colleagues usually helps to reduce the sensation and consequences of stress. Besides, being able to identify one’s own sensibility to various stress factors and recognizing one’s own limits through self-observation appears as a key exercise in order to take control over the sources of stress. This is even truer when one anticipates the stress and prepare for it; taking control over the source of stress and reducing them through proper planning and preparation remains the best way to avoid stress! As a manager, it is obviously your responsibility to be aware of your conditions and to make sure that you do not run off-limits, while, at the same time, you also have a role to play in educating and supporting your teams in coping with their negative stress factors as well.

Last Revision: 2015 March 28


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