resilience real-time podcast: episode 04
Under the surface of stress and performance
resilience real-time podcast: episode 04
Under the surface of stress and performance
Today, more than ever, many conversations around mental health are focused on stress. Peta Sigley untangles the difference between positive and negative stress and how it can help both individuals and organisations build their resilience and achieve a sustainable level of high performance.
Featuring: Peta Sigley
Host: Simon Cook
Production: Claire Taylor
Music: Josh Jones
A Springfox production. This is resilience real-time with Peta Sigley.
Hi, I am Simon Cook and welcome to resilience real-time with Peta Sigley.
I’m delighted to have with me again Peta Sigley, Chief Knowledge Officer from Springfox. With a stack of professional qualifications from psychology, counselling to economics, she's really well placed to help us get under the surface of the key issues around resilience and well-being, and today more than ever, many conversations are turning to stress. How stressed we are; how stress is impacting on individuals and organisations; that were more stressed than ever, and how challenging that can be in many ways. Peta's deep expertise and knowledge in this space, is certain to make for a really interesting conversation.
Hi Peta. Great to see you again, and I'm really looking forward to this one.
Thanks Simon, and again it's great to be here.
So, Peta, I guess the best place to start is always the beginning. We're all thinking that we know what stress is, but do we really? What is the definition of stress?
Simon, again a great conversation to start this podcast with. So, stress, when I ask people to define what stress means to them, or how they look at stress often they give me one-word answers. So, we hear things like overload, intensity, fatigue, and that can be emotional, mental as well as physical. We hear things around relationships, lack of sleep, changing diet. Sometimes it's immediate families, so their children come into play there, or partners. Sometimes it's to do with work and whether that be internal clients, external clients. So, for many people stress takes on a culmination of different factors, and so defining stress for them, often looks like a very negative picture of what's going on in their environment – in their world.
So, for many, when it comes to the conversation of resilience, resilience is a measure of how well we actually cope with stress. And interestingly enough, when we looked at stress for us, as an organisation or Springfox, myself, we define stress really, as that feeling that we get when we don't feel as though we are coping so well. And this can be influenced by things that are both real or imagined. And often it can be really hard to untangle whether something's really creating stress for an individual, or myself, or whether it’s an imagined aspect. So, stress can be both real or imagined and so it’s sometimes hard to nail what it actually is for people.
Interestingly enough, in terms of the research, what we know is, there’s a great paper put out by Ganzel, Morris and Wethington. And they looked at four outcomes in response to stress. And I think this goes some way to providing clarity around that definition – when we start to look at those outcomes.
We know that we learn and grow from a stressful event and challenge, and that can build higher levels of resilience. And that's really the ultimate outcome that we can be looking for. Number two, we manage or we cope with an event but we return to baseline, prior to the event actually occurring. So, we neither adapted nor grown from the experience and so we have not enhanced our level of resilience at all. Three, we're coping. We take a bit of a hit and that can mean that we don’t recover well, and that we don't get back to where we started. So, we’re coming into the next lot of events, from a lower base, and we really don't want that scenario to happening too often. And the fourth one, which is the one we are really trying to avoid, is that we are not responding well and in fact there is a level of dysfunction there. And this can be really quite self-destructive. So, what we know from those last two options in particular, in terms of outcomes, is that impact of chronic stress. That can lead to something we call an allostatic load, and that changes the functioning in the brain, making us far more susceptible to stress, and certainly less resilient.
That’s really interesting. So, if I’m doubting my resources to cope with my pressures, then do different people have a varying capacity to handle stress?
So the short answer to your question there Simon, is yes, we do have varying capacities. And we can either build or deplete our capacity, depending on a number of things. But I think we just need to take a step back for a moment and actually differentiate the concepts of pressure and stress. So, we know that pressure and the viewing of pressure by an individual is far more objective and far more useful. So, we know that people who can recognise pressure, as opposed to feeling stressed, or having that response of stress, feel far more confident when it comes to their ability to control what's going on. So, whether that pressure is coming from an external force – so somebody at home, something that is happening at work, or it’s coming internally, because we're driving forward to try and achieve a goal. Pressure is viewed very differently to stress. So, stress is nearly the response to pressure. That's the bit where we start to fall over. For many of us that’s how we view stress, and that we're not coping at that point. So again, capacity certainly enhanced and depleted depending on what's going on around us. So, we often get depleted from our previous experiences – things like trauma, fatigue. And interestingly, when I talk about fatigue, I really stop to mention that it can be mental, it can be emotional, as well as physical. And even down to what we eat. You know, sugar levels changing. Certainly, our expectations we place on ourselves, without relenting and adjusting, and seeing how realistic those expectations are. Or if we over care about what somebody thinks of us, can definitely deplete our ability to handle stress.
The upside is that we can certainly increase our ability to handle stress, and that is really playing out when we can stay in the moment. So, we’re really focusing on our strengths. We’re looking after ourselves in terms of that trilogy of diet, sleep, exercise. But we’re also taking in an element of meditation, mindfulness, contemplation and we’re getting lots of positive feedback from others. I suppose what we really trying to minimise is the impact that stress can have, and be closely linked to things like fear, anxiety, worry, burnout and illness.
Yeah, great insight there. I still feel thought that there's more stress around today. I'm not sure that I've got any evidence for that statement, but I do feel it. So, what actually causes that stress today?
This is a really interesting conversation point, in terms of this perception that we are under more stress, we’re under more pressure. Certainly, the ways of working have changed. When we look back at the pressure faced by society and earlier generations, we always look at the rosy side of things and think that life has been better or easier for them. And it is fair to say that the pressure has changed from today, versus last year, versus last century. However, given that stress is around the perception of your ability to cope, and effectively in your mind’s eye, around how you are dealing with things, I don't think it's easy to say that this means, that stress has increased.
You were talking about pressure and stress. Were you saying that there is such a thing as good stress?
Yes, there is such a thing as good stress. And that really quite surprises some people. They don't tend to think of stress as being good. And for me, I tend to focus on more of stress mastery. Choosing where I sit in that conversation of stress, as opposed to stress management. Management focusing only on the negative aspects of stress. And there’s some great things that you can do to manage your stress. But really, what we’re aiming for, particularly around ultimate performance and resilience is that mastering that stress response. So, what we know in terms of a continuum, or a performance supply chain, or pressure performance curve – the Yerkes Dodson Curve. We know that at some point there is no stress. And hopefully many of us are putting in there, things around relaxation. Whether that’s passive or active. So active – going and doing some exercise, something we enjoy. Passive might be sleeping, watching movies, something like that. Then there’s this concept of optimal stress or useful stress, positive stress. This is not comfortable; it is fair to say. But it does focus our mind. And the beauty of this, is that we can do this for a prolonged period. So, we can get great results when we are in the space of positive stress. Of course, once we move beyond this and we are in an area of strain, we are in an area of distress. So, this can be really, really, useful, even negative stress for short bursts. And that allows us to adapt quickly. But the caveat here, is that we must have relaxation afterwards, to gain any form of benefit. Of course, prolonged chronic negative stress, we are leading to a space of burnout. So, this is where we have failure of a body, mind, spirit, which is totally exhausted.
So positive stress versus negative stress, you can see that there are some pros and cons for both. But we really want to be coming out of the negative stress space, into a positive stress space. And the reason why we are looking to do that is that when we can focus on positive stress, that really is the forerunner to flow and peak performance. So, we have a whole range of emotions that we would associate with positive stress – and that’s enthusiasm, passion, it’s excitement, arousal, anticipation. As opposed to all the negative words that I gave you earlier when we started this conversation.
Right. Brilliant. Thank you. I've heard of something called stress inoculation. What's that all about?
So, Simon, when we talk about inoculating against stress, it’s a phrase that gets used a lot. Unfortunately, what we find is that it ends missing the point a little bit. And it ends up sort of demonising the concept or the word of stress. So, when we talk about stress inoculation, it’s like being immune to stress. So, it’s like being immunised against stress. So, what we do know is that resilient people are actually not trying to get rid of all stress. The stress management side of things. Living with no stress leads to disorder and chaos effectively. So, we really want to be focusing on the concept of positive stress. Because it gets us up and out of bed each day and allows us to live life and chase our goals.
This concept of stress mastery is really what we're talking about. Leading to the space of sustainable performance.
That’s brilliant. So, this is great that we’ve now got a handle on what stress is, and I've got a really good handle on what causes it. But I'm also now interested in what the wider implications of stress are. Are there any and what would they be?
So, one of the big things that stress can influence, is our relationships with other people, and how we socially interact with people, and ultimately trust is really what we’re talking about here. So, we know that positive stress motivates ourselves and others, and is contagious. You know, we can really lead to teams, organisations, as well as individuals moving forward. What we know from negative stress, this is associated with fatigue, we take an immune hit, physical illness, mental illness and burnout and we tend to pull away from others.
So positive stress and flow, certainly build trust and respect. And are really I think, at the heart of who we are. Trust and respect is certainly something that we look for others to have in us and for us to have in others. And what we know is that overtime, negative stress is associated with lower levels of trust. And so, it actually goes about destroying trust, respect and at times builds in a level of contempt.
Right. So what implications are there then for leaders. For example, do leaders potentially underestimate the damage that high levels of stress can do to trust in their organisations and teams, Peta?
So, fundamentally, part of a competency around leadership, or one of the things that we are looking for, from our leaders, is their ability to help individuals live and work with positive stress. With elements of control and relaxation and ultimately finding this space of flow. So high challenge, high skill, but no stressor to speak of. Not from a detrimental aspect. And when that happens, then we can build mutual trust, confidence and compassion. So collectively we’re moving forward. When we have leaders who push a team very, very, hard, and they’re sitting with negative stress, and that's the norm – what we know is that staff start to feel like it’s a bit of a sweat shop, and they don't tend to have a place of creativity, connection and a way of working differently, collaboratively. That all gets compromised, is what we see.
That’s brilliant. So, something to take on board there. So finally, Peta, what's your one takeaway for people, when it comes to stress. And I have to say, I know you well enough, to know that there might be more than one!
Thanks Peta. I’ve certainly learned a lot more about stress. And it was great to really get a definition and understand the drivers of stress. And I'm really happy that you pointed out that stress can be positive too. So, thanks again Peta.
My absolute pleasure Simon.
Next time Peta will be giving us her Insights on trust. And how important trust is to both resilience and organisational performance. ‘Til then keep well.
This is a Springfox production. Hosted by me Simon Cook. Edited by Claire Taylor. Music written, composed and produced by Josh Jones. Tune in next time wherever you find your podcasts. Or check out our website Springfox.com. Don't forget to like and subscribe to help others find this podcast.