The Perils of Chronic Stress in the Workplace
or Hurry up-and lose your mind

by Timothy R. Walker, Ph.D

Most people believe the power behind business is money. Yet for many the physiological fuel is coffee and adrenaline. Our working culture glorifies stress and workaholism. Being pumped with adrenaline in a chronic stress state of fight or flight has become the accepted norm for a majority who believe that there is no other way to manifest their personal best and stay competitive.

It is true that, to give a presentation or negotiate a deal, the hormonal surge triggering the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system (responsible for the fight or flight reaction) can create a momentary burst of energy, a sense of mental alertness and the power of aggressiveness. This quality of pumped up aggressiveness has become the hallmark of the old paradigm “macho style” of management. Though many can profess the theories of the new enlightened forms of leadership, in practice their stressed out bodies hijack their minds, and their aggressive style rages on in a state of denial.

There are many long-term consequences to living and working in a constant state of fight or flight hyperarousal. This primitive system of defense, inherited through evolution from our animal ancestry, was never designed to last for more than ten or fifteen minutes—for the purpose of survival in a life-threatening emergency. As humans we drive ourselves into this classic stress reaction almost intentionally because of the pressures of performance, deadlines and multitasking. The real danger is that gradually we lose our capacity to return to our baseline state of normal autonomic regulation. Without this baseline, and the deeper states of healing relaxation, we give up the optimal functioning of all of our life-sustaining systems such as digestion, respiration, circulation, endocrine-hormonal and in particular the brain and nervous system. Thus we give up our capacity to heal, and to operate our mind and body in a healthy and sane manner.

Chronic stress, or keeping one’s system in overdrive day in and day out, has been proven to erode long term performance and to wreak havoc on relationships in the work culture, both of which show up as a significant amount of red ink on the bottom line. Researchers estimate that in Canada tens of billions of dollars are lost each year due to chronic stress-related problems in the private sector alone, (not to mention how much of our tax dollars are squandered due to absenteeism, illness, disability and bungled management due to chronic stress in the government.)

Many of us may already know that chronic stress is indicated as a causal factor in basically every chronic medical condition you can name, yet what a lot of people don’t realize is how our addiction to stress and speed significantly dulls our thinking, limits our capacity for decision making, and inhibits creativity. Literally, when we are stressed we don’t think straight. Instead we can be overwhelmed by emotions, especially anger, fear, anxiety or the forced numbness of depression. Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence, coined the phrase “emotional hijacking” to speak about the way the ‘primitive’ brain, the limbic system, can bypass the neocortex, or the ‘sophisticated human’ brain, as part of the fight or flight hardwiring in the brain. Chronic stress can cause short-term memory loss, indecisiveness, disorientation, confusion, and a general deterioration of higher intellectual capacities.

To counteract the negative effects of stress in the workplace we need a way to initiate and maintain a profound behavioural, physiological and attitudinal change in individuals, and a 180-degree turnaround in the cultural mindset. The paradoxical statement “slow is fast” speaks to this turnaround. Those unique individuals who remain calm in stressful situations, who think clearly and balance rationality with their intuitive and emotional intelligence, tend to see the bigger picture and make wise decisions. In the final analysis these wise decisions can save years of lost effort and millions of dollars never spent on bad ideas.

One comprehensive mind-body approach to the stress epidemic is the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction programs developed by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, author of Full Catastrophe Living and Wherever You Go, There You Are. Mindfulness involves training ourselves to be fully attentive to the present moment. By learning to tune in to body, breath, mind and the five senses, we are able to observe ourselves and our process. In this way we can remove layers of preconceptions and uncover our natural intelligence which leads toward personal transformation. The discipline of mindfulness trains one in a holistic yet direct and effective way to overcome stress reactivity. With the practice of mindfulness we can detach from the speed and confusion of compulsive doing and learn to relax into the peaceful sanity and wisdom of life as a human being.