I don’t know about you, but I get all mushy and flustered when someone refers to me as “a business leader.” Personally, I have always seen myself as a “business follower.” So you can imagine why I am putty in the hands of James C. Price, a frequent contributor to my 34th favorite website, refreshleadership.com, who has recently, digitally reached out to me and other “business leaders” in a must-read article titled “Fight or Flight: Dealing with Stress.”
Of course, for you, fight or flight is not a decision you have to make. The moment your manager comes within 50 yards of your workstation, you’re instantly transformed into Usain Bolt, racing down the track for the safety of your favorite stall in your favorite bathroom. But for many of us, the question of whether to stand our ground or hit the ground running is a matter of some confusion, and if Price is to be believed — and I believe he is — of some importance.
It all starts with our early ancestors, the Neanderthals. (No, not your cousins, Mort and Hildy Neanderthal from Granville, Ohio. I’m talking Iron Age, baby, when cave men and cave women worked in cave cubicles and saber-tooth tigers roamed Earth.)
You see, the first time our Neanderthal ancestors sensed a saber-tooth tiger creeping up on them, there was no stress. They simply thought: “Gee, that’s a big kitty cat. I wonder if it would like to play with a ball of wool?”
Skip ahead a several thousand years, and the only Neanderthals who were still around had caught on to the fact that tigers are not kitty cats. They also knew that the best course of action when sensing one is about to be pounced upon is either to run like hell or get out a bazooka. This produced stress. (Since they didn’t have bazookas back then, they mostly ran like hell.) And so the fight-or-flight response was born.
Today, we have very few saber-tooth tigers, but we do have human resource professionals and IT technicians and management consultants and senior vice presidents of every stripe, whose teeth are just as sharp. That’s why we still experience stress and, as every Neanderthal knows, stress can be very damaging to your mind, your body and what we laughingly call your personality.
At this point, we can turn to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health — NIOSH to its friends — which has determined that “there are two different categories of what influences stress in the workplace: worker characteristics and working conditions.”
In other words, while it is possible that long hours, high expectations, impossible deadlines and constant hectoring from management may possibly, conceivably cause stress, it’s probably all your fault. Why? Because you’re weak, inefficient, and management really needs someone to blame.
But maybe I’m being unfair to NIOSH, because they do offer several sources for workplace stress other than you. There’s heavy workload, infrequent breaks, lack of family-friendly policies, lack of support from co-workers and supervisors, too much responsibility, job insecurity, and unpleasant workplace environment. That’s right — pretty much all the working conditions management works so hard to maintain.
If management won’t take stress seriously, you should. Stress can be dangerous to your health. As Price writes, “When the body is kept in a constant state of emotional agitation, the threat of heart, stomach, and long-term emotional problems exponentially increase.” All this can lead to fatigue, upset stomachs and headaches.
So when your boss brags, “I don’t get headaches; I give headaches,” she’s absolutely right. This is exactly why it is necessary for the company to cut back on your health care benefits. They can’t afford to treat all the employees they’re making sick.
With the American Psychological Association and the Institute of Stress reporting that more than 77 percent of all people regularly experience the physical symptoms of stress, it is definitely time for business leaders like myself to step in and step up.
I’m supposed to “change my organization to better encourage a more positive environment and a better work/life balance.” And just as soon as I can make sure my executive compensation package is safely deposited in my Cayman Islands bank account, I’m going to do just that. In the meantime, I’ll just fire everyone who looks tired, or has an upset tummy, or has aspirin in their desk drawer. If they think the stress at my workplace is so bad, I’m sure they’ll feel perfectly relaxed at the unemployment office.
Bob Goldman was an advertising executive at a Fortune 500 company, but he finally wised up and opened Bob Goldman Financial Planning in Sausalito, California. He offers a virtual shoulder to cry on at firstname.lastname@example.org.