Stress Reduction and Management

Review of "Thriving Under Stress"

By Thomas W. Britt and Steve M. Jex
Oxford University Press, 2015
Review by Roy Sugarman, PhD on Apr 5th 2016
Thriving Under Stress

Workplace resilience and quality of life are continued themes in the newspapers, blogs, and certainly in the demands we see at LifeIQ and EXOS USA: we sit too much, move to little, and have adjusted our environment in such a way that food remains a toxic issue, even organic foods, as they have been modified from what we might be adapted to in evolutionary terms. The idea of thriving, namely developing resilience to the modern world, as well as balancing the demands made upon us with the capacity we possess, both in essence perceptions, is the foundation subject of this book.

Both of these authors are predictably psychologists, both academics (so you might wonder if they work for a living, I say rather tongue in cheek there), and indeed they are involved in the real world outside of academia, both in the field of developing resilience as well as dealing with occupational and health and safety concerns in their research.  As good researchers do, they are quick to acknowledge the PhD students who contribute to their body of knowledge, namely Jannelle Cheung and Alison Bayne, and so I think they should be mentioned here too. 

The demands of the workplace is a phrase that provokes comments: demands that we have to meet, and given stress is the imbalance or perceived imbalance between demand and capacity, to elevate capacity is essential, as is the perception of the demand required.  The idea is to take a positive, proactive stance vis a vis stress and strain at work, and both learn from, and arise to take on, the challenges provided as an opportunity to overcome and then reflect on the accomplishment. In this regard, both recovery as well as seeking meaning in the workplace and the task itself are also key.  Hindrance stressors is a term introduced to those obstacles that are outside of the employee's authority, power and influence and thus cannot be changed. The first part of the book identifies the stressors at work, and the second part what can be done to thrive.  The third part references what can be done to recover from the demands themselves.

We spend so much time at work, most of us have no choice but to work, and for many, working is important to their world view. These issues make it critical as a source of stress that must be molded to suit our outcomes.

After briefly discussing various models of workplace stress, the authors identify four types of stressors, namely work demand stressors (vs control), interpersonal stressors, role stressors, and finally work/non-work boundary stressors.  Helpful boxes now appear which detail what this means for managers, with some helpful advice.  Added to this list are what are referred to as extra-organizational stressors.  This is allied to the conflict with the workplace-home boundary, but in this case refers to actual issues outside of the workplace which impact on return in the workplace although they are not connected, e.g. divorce or illness and so on.

As with Hooke's Law in physics, stress within the elastic psychological, physical and behavioral limits does not result in much distortion in any of the three categories, but beyond the elastic limit, namely if we exceed certain limits, plastic changes, or strains emerge in one or more of the above categories. Anxiety, depression and frustration are three such outcomes in the behavioral sense in psychological stressors, and in the physical sense they are those you would predict, sore tummy, sleep, headache, tiredness and so on. Behavioral strains, as opposed to the psychological, are more complex, divided by the authors into four categories; productive, withdrawal, counter-productive and health behaviors. This last is an inverted relationship compared to psychological, in that health behaviors outside of the workplace now impact, such as alcohol and tobacco, as well as of course poor eating and lack of exercise.  Then again there are crossover strains as seldom are we involved in only one category or subcategory in isolation, and hence there is contamination and collateral.  PTSD and workplace violence are sadly possible, and together with the other strains, there is a financial cost to the company.

The big issue for these authors is the concept outlined in the next chapter, namely the idea that a demand or requirement of the job in the workplace can be viewed as a threat to the homeostasis of the worker, or a challenge which would perturb but enhance the functionality across time, if I can add my own language to theirs. This is thus a series of perceptions subject to appraisal.  This means also distinguishing between hindrance and challenge stressors as I noted before.  Since the key is the appraisal, this is a reference more correctly to cognitive appraisal, primary meaning the relevance to the person, and secondarily, what can be done about the stressors encountered along the way.  A challenge appraisal (and the box helps managers foster this process), is thus the best outcome for all, namely that what is to occur is not menacing. Increased effort might follow a challenge appraisal, but a case where it is conceived that the extra effort will not result in a better outcome, is a hindrance appraisal, and refers thus to a sense of self-efficacy, or what I will do will make a difference, or at least the belief that it will, and hence it is not futile, as it would be in a hindrance appraisal.  A physical stressor is almost always likely to be considered a hindrance stressor. For the manager, learning how to promote a culture of challenge appraisals would be the way to go.

A particular persona might therefore characterize an employee who thrives under stress, and sets them apart from the others.  Now we see the first definitions of those who possess this quality, in other words those who are characterized by resilience. The agreed definition is for those who bounce back from setbacks or in the face of adversity: they thrive no matter what really. These are the guys who see challenge and not hindrance in these author's sense of the workplace. If appraisal is everything, then these workers must see the world differently to their less resilient colleagues.

So speaking of workers, and of their supervisors, one of these is more likely to be resilient if they perceive high levels of social support: being alone as humans does not help us feel bulletproof. Instrumental help would imply that practical solutions were at hand, but emotional support on the other hand implies some sort of advice or other verbalized support or empathy, namely we are all in the same boat so I get ya.  Even the potential of support as opposed to the here and now facility is likely to help scaffold resilience. Not standing alone, the impact here is also intersected with personality traits, briefly discussed here, as well as hardiness as a personality trait, with high control for instance an indicator of hardiness, or at least correlated, as are commitment and challenge. Dispositional optimism is allow mooted as a predictor of resilience, as such people expect the most positive outcomes as part of their world view.  A newer postulated trait is that of a proactive personality, as well as locus of control, both thought to impact on resilience. A positive psychological state might impart high levels of psychological capital, namely confidence, positive attribution tendencies, perseverance as in grit, and bouncing back in the face of adverse experience.  This implies certain approaches to coping, now covered in the light of problem focus rather than emotion focus as a bias in response to challenge. This would also imply active coping as a better form of approach, more proactive in any event, than avoidance coping.  This all begs the question if resilience can be trained.  Resilience can thus be broadly divided into several components which can then be the focus of training/learning to be proactive, problem-focused, goal directed, optimistic and positive and so on.

Since resilience is about more than just coping, the next chapter concentrates on thriving as a concept, akin in many ways to Seligman's flourishing. From such a point of view, the necessary demands of the workplace should be balanced by the elements of resilience that lead to a sense that demand matches the supply of personal resource, at least in terms of perception of both challenge and capacity.  Athletes would call this flow, in the sense that they do not feel they are thinking, just living in the moment with demand and supply of resource balanced perfectly.

Thriving matters for wellbeing and performance, and these determinants of thriving such as autonomy, ability to make decisions, optimism, proactivity, job crafting, interpersonal connects that are supportive, leadership, and the end senses of vitality, personal engagement and development thus produce the experience. These are then discussed and guidelines are given for managers to enhance the experience for workers.

As noted earlier in these authors' approach, stress is studied for its positive effects, with reference back to Canadian Hans Selye's term 'eustress'. This is a complex series of arguments with a bifurcation between distress and eustress as Selye defined them. Echoes here of Dan Pink's summary of motivation in terms of autonomy, mastery and purpose, and of the self-determination literature inclusion of effectance and relatedness, all come out in their discussions. Their approach however focuses on the comment that higher levels of challenge produce higher levels of performance, and this can be a focus in the workplace. One critical feature of this would be the level of engagement for instance, namely that commitment to the organization, linking to a sense of purpose, would impact on the positivity of the experience of the increased loading. The reciprocal support from the organization is thus also a necessity. This might involve some skills training in dealing with stress, including cognitive control techniques that deal with distractions, physiological control of physical manifestations of stress, modelling, over-learning, attentional training, time sharing skills, flexibility and so on.

You might have noticed the word 'physiological' management above, and the next chapter works on the assumption that a sense of personal energy being finite but available is essential, drawing on sleep, nutrition and exercise as necessary resources that need to be managed well. Meaningful relationships are also necessary and should be fostered, as well as various other strategies for managing energy effectively, such as micro-breaks. The idea of non-work related breaks and detaching from work as a strategy for restoring energy is also evoked here and in the next chapter.

Failures to thrive are naturally possible, and these may derive from something different to burnout's causes, namely person-environment misfit (mismatch of cultures for instance), boredom, and other issues which might be addressed as one would burnout.

The authors warn that the boxes throughout this book contain essential advice for managers that if ignored, in other words their advice is not taken, then they should expect low levels of resilience in their staff.  This would lead staff to perhaps burnout, and if not, namely they would simply cope, then they would be failing to enhance the opportunity to thrive and be more engaged and productive.

As you will have realized, the book is exhaustive in talking through every possible aspect of the study of workplace resilience, and does so intensely as the book is relatively slim given how much is discussed in its approximately 200 pages of text. There is a lot to take in, and the average manager would probably have to wade through tons of information with a scrap pad of notes taken to make coherent sense of it all. This would be a worthwhile endeavor however as this book is surely the equivalent of a 6 month course at the hands of the authors, with all the ins and outs of resilience clearly investigated and hence the need for the information boxed mentioned above.

What strikes anyone reading this, let's say from another less industrialized part of the world, is how awful the workplace is made to sound. It is so stressful and damaging the place that IF managers ignore the advice given, essential to modern industrial settings, the worker is likely to suffer a fair amount of negatively impacting stress. The modern workplace appears to be highly fraught with loss of autonomy and lack of support, loss of sense of control and a chance for toxicity of all kinds. Books now abound about thriving, flourishing, motivation for the 21st century tasks, and in avoiding stress becoming strain, so much has to happen that it fills a book like this.

Working for yourself is no picnic either and comes with its own challenges. A follow up book which is much simpler, for instance entitled something like "Creating a positive thriving workforce" might help align the managers with the task. If the workplace is capable of being such a toxic environment that major managerial input is required, then what is wrong with our society in that it places demands on us that might easily exceed our biological capacity to endure? Stress, burnout, failure to thrive, mood and addiction disorders, illness, relationship breakdowns: this is what I work with increasingly as there is less recovery time allocated to our daily schedules, and hence impact on our wellbeing.

This book thus isolates the workplace environment from a generally toxic world with lifestyles that impact on food and exercise quality, and sponsor sedentary behavior and burden of stress. In my team at EXOS we speak of four pillars, dealt with here in this book as well, that scaffold performance: Mindset, Nutrition, Movement and Recovery. In essence this book masters the first pillar and creates a vault of information that requires careful scrutiny in order to successfully scaffold the performance of everyday workers, who are now required to join the ranks of peak performers, given the exigencies of modern life.

 

© 2016 Roy Sugarman

 

Roy Sugarman PhD, Director: Applied Neuroscience, Performance Innovation Team, EXOS USA

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