Transforming Stress – From Cost to Competitive Advantage



Almost 8 out of 10 people regularly experience physical symptoms caused by stress. The cost of this for employers is around US$300bn every year in stress related health care and absences.

Stress-related presenteeism (defined as the lost productivity that occurs when employees come to work but, as a consequence of illness or other conditions, are not fully functioning) and absentism are costing employers more than AU$10billion a year.

As industry leaders, it makes sense for boards to tackle this costly issue. And the first step in doing so is to challenge how organisations, and society, have normalised and accepted stress. We actually expect we should feel stressed during certain circumstances e.g. tough market conditions, organisational change, busy times of year etc. For some professions it is almost worn as a merit badge of their commitment to success.

What effect does stress have in a company?

Health: Stress causes a variety of health problems, including high blood pressure, stomach ulcers, headaches, fatigue, and muscle pain. Poor emotional health can weaken your body’s immune system, making you more likely to contract colds and other infections. These health problems can increase work absenteeism, usage of health insurance and work-related accidents.

Poor Performance: Stress can make it difficult to concentrate, relate to others or think creatively. It can lead to feelings of negativity, lack of enthusiasm and apathy. The consequences are obvious - unmet expectations and deadlines, poor judgement, uncompassionate or anti-social behaviour to co-workers, absenteeism, and high staff turnover. A company’s productivity and competitive edge is reliant on the application of its human assets. And stress is major threat and disabler of those assets.

What are companies misunderstanding about stress?

At a boardroom level, companies are developing policies to tackle the issue, thus reducing the potential financial burden. However, the policies being adopted are not getting to the root of the issue, and are dealing with the problem based on a normalised misunderstanding of the causes of stress. They are tackling stress by

a) Attempting to reduce the key stressors e.g. workload, support, relationships, role, control and communication of change

b) Teaching cognitive coping strategies to help employees manage their stress. These approaches enable people to create different behavourial responses to their stress i.e. reframe the stress thoughts, or adapt the outside world to mitigate it. See example below of a commonly used stress management model.

A common, but flawed way of dealing with stress: Often in the workplace employees are taught to deal and cope with stress by a) Change the situation; by altering or changing the stressor, b) change you reaction; by accepting or adapting to the stressor. Whereas these cognitive or behavioural approaches might appear a better option than suffering the stress 'unaided', they are addressing the problem from the wrong paradigm.

So what is the real problem?

The current wisdom about what causes stress and therefore how to combat it, is based on an incorrect paradigm of how human psychology actually operates.

Most of modern workplace psychology (and psychology in general) promotes the idea that external events create stress and we either need to reduce those events and circumstance or learn to cope to mitigate them (the old ‘avoid, alter, accept, adapt’ model as above). Then based on that outside-in paradigm, the solution to stress is also ‘outside in’,

Quite simply, it’s wrong. The system that creates human experience does not work that way - external events don't create stress (or any feelings for that matter). This is not just a nice belief to have or nice mantra to try to cling onto, it genuinely does not work like that. It might look like it and it is an excellent illusion. But it is completely inaccurate.

So what is the real answer?

It comes down to a very simple profound principle - that in any moment, our experience and feeling state is only ever coming from our thinking. Nowhere else. And because that is true, it means potentially, anyone can have any experience, about any occurrence in the outside world at any moment. Once we truly realise (non-intellectually) that nothing in the outside world determines our thoughts or feelings, it has huge life changing implications, including how we relate to - and therefore and deal with - stress. There is no longer a need to avoid stress or alter your situation, as the stress doesn't really exist. It is like thinking it would be a good idea to give your child better places to hide when they are scared watching the wicked witch on a TV show, rather than explaining the nature of TV.

One could argue: “But aren’t some things just inherently stressful?” No. Only if you engage in a personal narrative of thoughts that create stressful feelings. All our thoughts are formless, arbitrary and transient. They can appear and disappear in an instant. A thought might come into our minds that has the potential to be stressful, but if we see it as just that – a passing thought - it just floats by without hanging around to create meaning and wreak havoc with our feelings.

So what does this mean for your organisation?

So the question for board members is - are you trying to fix your people issues, stress being a major example, from an ‘outside-in’ paradigm? Which is, at best, tactical - like trying to fix slow internet access by purchasing faster PCs when the real problem is the servers. There is some merit in these approaches, and it’s probably better than doing nothing. But it just is not the most effective or sustainable way to solve this very costly problem.

Companies need to think differently. To create a comparison in the area of elite sport performance, once sports coaches realised that physical conditioning was just as important to performance as the technical and tactical prowess of an athlete, they focused on it. They started to understand how our physical system actually worked. It is the same with psychological wellbeing. We have a natural psychological immune system and the better we understand it, the more psychologically fit we become. Unfortunately most of the current understanding is based on an incorrect paradigm – outside-in. And this doesn’t only limit the psychological immune system, it actively gets in the way of it.

By helping leaders and their employees understand how the human psychological system, and hence stress, actually operates i.e. from an inside-out perspective - where external events have no direct cause on a person’s feelings, behaviour or well-being, companies can create a highly effective, creative, resilient workforce who are happy in themselves and their work.

The handful of forward-thinking organisations that genuinely understand this true inside-out nature of stress and performance, and that educate their leaders in that understanding, report their staff have become more ‘discouragement proof’ and highly resilient. Their staff have greater motivation and show more creativity. In short, they have gained a competitive advantage.

As more forward thinking companies begin to tackle stress in this much more effective way, there is an opportunity to shift the management of stress from being a cost, to a competitive discriminator.

Piers Thurston is a Vistage Speaker, if you would like to find out more about booking him for a workshop, group meeting or retreat, his full programme can be found on the Speaker Bureau.  A version of this article first appeared on LinkedIn Pulse.  

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