Stress: Bad Luck, Bad Manners or Just Bad Management?

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Did it stress you out a little not realising it was #NationalStressAwarenessDay this week?

It did me. If I’d known that, I could have got an appropriate post all ready to rock, ready to promote on the hashtag, relevant, timely…now you’ll be trailing Matthew, trailing, not good, not good…

Stress.

It’s a hard thing to avoid. So do we need reminding of it? Are we not, as so many put it so well on Twitter this week, more than aware of how stressed we are?

Life is stressful. Sometimes a little. Sometimes a lot (although it’s not always easy, and therefore can be quite stressful in itself, telling the two apart, particularly for those of us good at making mountains out of molehills).

Part of the trick is having the self awareness, and trigger awareness, to get a grip on what’s a mountain and what’s a molehill – and I’m sure it was this kind of awareness Stress Awareness Day was trying to promote (as well as, of course, the impact stress has on our health and well being).

Not that we should ever negate someone’s stress due to our perceived sense of whether it’s justified or not. If someone is stressed, they’re stressed. The last thing anyone needs when they’re stressed out is someone telling them they’re being ‘silly’ by getting stressed out about something so minor.

Of course, the amplification of minor stresses is usually because there are some much bigger stresses going on in parallel. It really can be straws that break camels’ backs, but that’s most likely after a succession of much heavier loads.

Personally, I’m quite good at handling the major big stresses in life (as much as anyone can be) – I’m the kind of person others go to in a crisis, I’m a professional ‘problem solver’ – but I’m not so good at handling the little things.

Not so good at all. Of this I’m well aware.

The little things really get to me because, as I see it, they are unnecessary stresses, things that could easily be avoided.

It stresses me out walking down city streets where you have to watch where everyone else is walking as no one can look up from their screens to actually look for themselves anymore.

It stresses me out having to awkwardly (left-handedly) scan and pack my own shopping in a supermarket where there are no actual people to serve you (and the machines aren’t designed for south paws).

It stresses me out people not saying please and thank you, or holding the door for others, or ignoring customers in shops.

I remember a friend saying to me “But why do you even care, why do you even notice whether the customer in front of you said please or not? Why does it get to you so much?”

It was a good question. I blame a kind of hyper-vigilance, combined with a strong belief that actually, these little things do make a difference, are the oil that lubricates a civilised society and, most importantly, their loss is a sign of a lessening of personal social responsibility – it’s not my job to look where you’re going; the person serving you is a human being, not a machine, be grateful for that and treat them like one.

Could just be I’m turning into a really grumpy old man (don’t get me started on my stresses with inanimate objects – I’ve had more shouting matches with devices than I’ve ever had with living things).

Maybe I’m just, and have always been, a stress head. I remember a teacher at primary school once asking me how I was (in the middle of my re-organising the school library) and, after my saying I was rather stressed, him clearly finding this rather amusing, the notion of a nine year old boy being stressed. He even wrote a ‘avoid the stress’ comment in my little leaving book a couple of years later, so it was probably a real dinner party tale for him.

I was stressed. There were piles of books everywhere and I was tasked with organising them. I was rather precocious too, of course, so maybe it was the adult terminology that tickled him so (this would have been the early 80s, I would conjecture people talked less about stress then than they do now).

Nevertheless, he did negate my stressed out state (something I clearly remembered) and it’s something we all do to others when we’re not sharing the same stresses as them, and probably all do too much.

How many times have you heard yourself say things to a stressed out partner, friend or colleague like:

“Oh, don’t worry about it…”

“You’ll be okay….”

“It’ll all work itself out…”

Or even, the worst, the inexcusable, “Que sera, sera….”

None of it very helpful when someone is up to ninety and the adrenalin and cortisol is flowing.

Not for me at any rate, but then, I’m an exploder. I’ll blow up, have a rant, over-dramatise (“People who bump into others walking down a street while looking at a smartphones should be tasered,”) and then I’ll get over it.

The valve has been flicked, the steam released, and all is right again (at least for me – and I’ve worked hard at learning the lesson that my explosive forms of stress release might actually stress out other people in the process).

Oh, to have a longer fuse. Or to be more obtuse. That would help.

Thankfully, I have a lot of understanding people in my life. They know my triggers – and know, however nuclear I might get in the moment, I will settle down and regain my sense of humour, and perspective, pretty quickly.

(Also, thankfully, I’m working on minimising the stressy Red me and learning to breathe).

In the workplace, though, we can’t expect others to know us so well – and the workplace is possibly the biggest breeding ground for what we call the stress in our lives.

That’s why the ‘checking-in’ principle embedded in Kaizen business philosophy is so appealing to me. The idea that, before starting a meeting, everyone ‘checks in’ their state of mind.

This minimises waste. Everyone gets their stresses off of their chests, with the hope being, having done this, someone’s bad mood (induced by a delayed train and foul weather) won’t make them respond obstructively to a great idea simply because they’re in a foul mood, rather than because they don’t think it’s a great idea (as most of us know from experience, approaching a manager in a good mood with a new idea is a far better guarantee of success than approaching them with the exact same thing when in a bad one).

People are people and, as I’ve said before, we get in the way of ourselves.

It does seem we might be waking up to the fact though that poor people management is indeed one of the biggest causes of workplace stress.

Yes, we can support people to find better stress management techniques and create environments that support this. For their own interests, it’s smart for businesses to do this. I think it’s great to experiment with the patterns of the working day as highlighted by Mat Luschek in People Geekly this week too; there’s no question overwork, tiredness and lack of opportunity to even think about a healthier lifestyle, let alone the time to implement one, have a massive impact on engagement, productivity and innovation.

But the top priority has to be on making every manager a better people manager.

Letting each other know what stresses us out is a good place to start.

Pretending we don’t get stressed – I’ve had this so many times in interviews and I never buy it – is a pointless exercise. As animals, we’re programmed to get stressed, it’s how we survive. Fight or flight. Stress can drive us forward, make us think through consequences.

Stress, in many ways, has been the key to the success of our species. We need it. Just not so much of it, and not so much of it caused by what really amounts to casual, day-to-day human interactions where we should all know better and be able to play nicely.

As with pretty much everything, it all boils down to communication.

It stresses me out when…you stressed me out when…I feel stressed when…I’m sorry I stressed you out when…are all good places to start.

In the happy workplace, people check in with each other. In the unhappy workplace, everyone just wants to check out – and that’s a really stressful place to be.

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