Understanding our stress drivers: Name it to tame it

Originally published in the Globe & Mail December 21, 2020

Stress: Probably one of the top words used in 2020. While this time of year can conjure a wide range of emotions in a normal year, for many, this holiday season in particular will be riddled with feelings of isolation, loneliness and uncertainty, all on top of the stress we have already felt throughout 2020.

During a recent wellbeing-in-the-workplace event organized by HR community platform future foHRward, Bailey Parnell, founder of Toronto-based skills-training organizations SkillsCamp and SafeSocial, led a workshop to uncover and better understand our own stress drivers (e.g. unconscious internal pressures that make us do things quickly or emotionally). It became evident that once we could become more self-aware about the implications of our primary stress drivers, we could better tame them by communicating our needs and managing our actions accordingly.

Research cited by SkillsCamp identified five stress drivers, which can have both positive and negative impacts. In times of stress, most people tend to be driven primarily by one that, if not appropriately managed, can compromise work quality and team dynamics:

  1. Be perfect: Individuals driven to be perfect produce high-quality work, but sometimes at the expense of delivering on time.
  2. Please others: Individuals driven to please others tend to get along with everyone but can rely too heavily on consensus and avoid conflict in an effort to keep the peace. This can lead to suboptimal results if there is not enough healthy debate and divergent thinking among teams.
  3. Hurry up: Individuals driven to hurry up tend to be very efficient and productive, coming up with solutions quickly; however, they can risk not having enough buy-in and support for their ideas.
  4. Try hard: Individuals driven to try hard are enthusiastic and relied-upon volunteers – even for the tasks no one else wants to take on. However, they can overextend themselves and risk overpromising and underdelivering.
  5. Be strong: Individuals driven to be strong are able to stay calm under any circumstance; they give teams a sense that they can tackle anything, that everything is under control. However, especially in challenging times, they can come across as unapproachable or not empathetic.

Understanding our stress drivers, as well as those of our team members, can lead to a higher degree of empathy and an ability to better manage friction. For example, if a team is under a tight deadline, and one colleague’s primary stress driver is to hurry up, and another’s is to be perfect, you can see how they would be at odds. Without understanding one another’s stress drivers, there can be assumptions made about conflicting agendas or a lack of commitment to delivery.

Once we are aware of and understand the implications of our stress drivers, Ms. Parnell offers 12 tips for managing stress to improve our own resilience. Some of my favourites include:

  • Take care of the basics: Often when we are stressed, exercise, eating, sleep and hydration are the first things to take a back seat. Ironically, a five-minute walk or glass of water can be just what your pre-frontal cortex needs to shift from “survive” to “thrive” mode.
  • Breathe: Breathing changes our heartbeat and helps create the space we need to thoughtfully respond instead of emotionally react.
  • Define your coping strategies: Taking time to reflect on how you would like to react in times of stress helps create a blueprint for when things do go amiss. Thinking about coping strategies for when you’re alone and when you’re with others, both during the day and at night, is a great exercise to practise in moments of calm.

Finally, once we take care of our own mental health, we are better equipped to support others, which starts with empathy. As Ms. Parnell reminds us, “empathy does not mean that you’d feel the same thing if you were in the same situation – they might be feeling anger, but in the same situation, you would feel calm.” Rather, it is the “awareness and understanding of others’ needs, feelings and concerns from within their frame of reference.” Ms. Parnell shares five ways to support someone with mental health struggles, not requiring any special skills:

  1. Make your openness known to reduce stigma around mental-health challenges;
  2. Just ask – ask “how are you really doing?” before getting to business;
  3. Practise active listening – giving your full attention – so that people feel heard;
  4. Don’t make assumptions with regard to how someone with mental-health struggles can or can’t perform;
  5. Encourage seeking supports from the workplace through health benefits and other programs.