We have become brainwashed in accepting that stress is a normal part of the modern workplace but it’s not, its damaging our brains and our wellbeing and as a manager you need to be aware of its dangerous impact.
Chronic stress is well known to affect blood pressure and cause symptoms such as indigestion but it is less recognised how it is also damaging our brains. The amygdala is the guard dog of the brain – it activates stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. Adrenaline floods the body instantly – peaking immediately and then dropping. Cortisol however is released more slowly but will remain highly activated through constant worrying and stress – causing the negative impact on our brains and bodies.
The structures in our brains and associated hormones have an important evolutionary purpose in protecting us from danger. The amygdala has the function of processing threat and fear and flight or fight response. Cortisol, for example, has an essential role in managing homeostasis – regulating blood pressure, blood glucose and the immune system. However over-stimulation of cortisol causes the amygdala to work hard and over-develop – inflating in size as the stress radar picks up all sorts of misinformation – creating a vicious cycle.
Whilst stress causes the amygdala to inflate and over react it has also a big impact on the pre-frontal cortex. The pre-frontal cortex is like the wise old owl – thinking, problem solving and making decisions. However the pre-frontal cortex is very sensitive to stress. Stress disrupts the synapses between brain cells – creating challenges in dealing with emotions and thinking clearly and causing brain shrinkage. A sign that people are stressed may be outbursts of emotion, conflict and aggression and impulsive behaviour.
Stress also impacts on other brain structures – such as the hippocampus which controls memory – and actually reduces the volume of grey matter. Memory is hugely impacted by the impact of stress – think about how if you are scared about giving a presentation – often you will forget everything you had planned on saying but remember vividly the fear associated with the experience. This can become a stress feedback loop – the memory of the stress associated with the experience creates more stress hormones which increases the stress of the experience.
Stress also impacts on learning – people are best able to learn when they have fun and feel safe. Chronic stress shrinks the brain, reducing the capacity of the memory and making you less efficient and effective at your job. In fact memory problems are often one of the first signs of stress and a really good sign that you are overloaded. Stress is something that managers should initially consider when noticing a dip in performance.
Whilst neural pathways are like well-worn ski runs in the brain those pathways can be changed and new pathways can be created. The over reactive, over excitable amygdala can be dampened down through brain soothing activities and a workplace environment that reduces stress and enables create new neural pathways to be created. This requires a workplace strategy though and concerted effort.
Stress is endemic in our workplace. Targets, deadlines, long hours, job demands, conflicts with colleagues, lack of control and constant organisational changes are all causes of stress. In fact these are constant experiences for many people every single day and for some, pretty much every moment of every single day. The brain is battered by its constant exposure to stress hormones – often it just then takes one, sometimes, seemingly minor event to tip the individual into acute anxiety and depression. Other brain conditions have been shown to be linked to chronic stress too.
Many emotions often seen in the workplace – anger, conflict, distress and over sensitivity are caused by the harmful impact of stress on the brain. Other signs may be a visible loss of motivation, struggling with workload, challenges with decision making and a drop in performance. These issues are signs that workplace stress is an issue. The likelihood is that this is not just an individual issue but one that affects many people and needs to be addressed on both an individual and organisational level. Managers don’t just have a moral obligation but a legal obligation to create a safe workplace, identify and assess workplace stress and then to act upon it.
Finally – managers need to become aware of the impact stress is having on them. Managers aren’t immune to the impact of stress. They are humans too! In fact the pressures of the role and associated isolation increase the likelihood of stress. The ultimate leadership challenge isn’t about hitting targets, it’s about leading workplace wellbeing. In addition to a strategic organisation wide approach leaders need to also lead by example through engaging in self-care and building self-awareness. This will improve performance of both them and their teams.
The Sweet Potato Consultancy (www.thesweetpotatoconsultancy.com) is passionate about workplace wellbeing and mental health.
We work with forward thinking leaders to reduce people, financial and skills wastage creating workplace cultures where both people and organisations thrive.