Chief People Officer Forum | The New Science of Stress - Part 1
People perform better as a result of stress responses - we become more creative and more focussed on the moment. The problem comes when we remain in that state for too long.
Many of us in the CPO Forum are well educated on stress and resilience and, in theory, know what should be done. However, people leaders are also incredibly selfless - they put their companies first. That’s why there aren't many CPO-centric communities and even fewer stress management frameworks designed with people leaders in mind.
So, it was great to see our forum members come together to welcome Reeva Misra, Founder & CEO of Walking on Earth and Dr Alexandra Crosswell. This was an important session in which we considered the biological responses to stress and the tools and techniques we can use to balance ourselves. So, please read on. CPO or not, you should indulge yourself.
Reeva Misra is the Founder and CEO of Walking on Earth. A science-based platform to end workplace stress, with a mission to elevate human happiness. You can imagine why I love what they are doing. Reeva has had an incredible background working for a multitude of tech start-ups and scaleups across AI, big data, education, and health. Most recently, she was VP Strategy at Benevolent AI.
Dr Alexandra Crosswell is an assistant professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioural science at the medical school of the University of California in San Francisco. As an expert in psychological stress, Alexandra’s research focuses on the biological mechanisms linking stress to physical health and what we can do to combat the negative biological effects that toxic stress can provide which I think we all know is something we all struggle with.
Dr Alexandra Crosswell
The New Science of Stress - Part 1
Reeva: Issues with mental health, such as burnout, skyrocketed since the beginning of the pandemic. However, most of these conversations tend to focus on the employees and often people teams are overlooked.
In addition, those same people don't tend to have an outlet for their stress. They also need a forum to discuss how to cope with the high-level impact of stress and how to turn that knowledge into actionable insights. There’s no better person to guide us through these topics than Dr Crosswell. So, let’s start at the very beginning. How would you define stress, Alexandra?
Alexandra: As a researcher, I define stress in a way that resonates with people teams. It's when there are too many demands on your plate and not enough resources to balance out those demands. If you think of a weighing scale, it's when the demands are just so much heavier than the available resources. Demands can be anything such as time pressure, too many emails, too many assignments, having children, or trying to maintain a social life. Resources are things like time, knowledge, and support from other people.
We don’t necessarily need to reduce our stress. We should get rid of that concept altogether. Instead, let’s shift our focus on the resources we need to balance out the equation. That will allow us to accomplish what we want to accomplish without destroying ourselves. That’s important because stress comes from things we care about. We want to do well at work; we want to be present for our family; we want to keep learning and growing in our careers. Despite their benefits, each of those things are demands on our time. So, we have to talk about resources.
Let’s think about it through a work stress lens. If a direct report comes into your office and all they're talking about is how much they have on their plate, it can be hard to actually help them. Alternatively, if they come in and they say “I'm looking at what's on my plate, but I'm concerned about the demands to accomplish these things because I don’t have the right resources. I haven’t had this specific skill training.” It’s a lot easier to enable them to solve their own stress-inducing problems. We need to develop resilient resources as well as a framework of how to obtain them. That’s how we get to a more equal balance.
Reeva: Before we begin to develop that toolkit, could you give us a brief rundown of what happens to our bodies when we’re stressed. We all have feelings that we associate with stress, like butterflies in our stomachs or sweaty palms, but what’s happening physiologically and why does that have a negative effect on our behaviour?
Alexandra: I love to discuss this stuff – I’ve been studying it for 15 years! When your palms get sweaty and your heart starts to race, that’s a stress response. Depending on your threshold, it can happen when you're sitting in traffic and you're going to be late, or when you need to walk into your boss's office and negotiate a raise. That's the response your body will exhibit because it knows of an impending challenge. Your body is preparing - as human bodies have done for the entirety of their existence - to pump blood into your muscles so that you can respond to the stressor.
In modern life, you don’t always need that blood rushing into your muscles. Especially not when it’s a work-related stressor. We’re not running away from lions; we must cognitively overcome these modern-day challenges. That means being at our sharpest and most discerning when we go to convince our boss that a higher salary is well deserved. Yes, there's blood going into your muscles, but that also means more blood is getting into your brain. So, stress isn't always bad - it allows your brain to get more oxygen, more blood, and more nutrients in times of heightened challenge.
In acutely stressful situations, research shows that you perform better when you have a stress response. You become more creative, you're more detail-oriented, you're more present and focus on the moment. Do you see how focused I am right now? When I'm talking, I'm not distracted by anything that's going on around me. I'm fully here because I'm in performance mode and that requires a stress response. My heart is pumping faster, which has activated an increased breath rate. That's good because it means I'm going to perform at my peak, which wouldn’t be possible without cause.
The problem comes when I remain in that state for the rest of the day. That is how most of us are living. It takes energy for my body to be in a performance state. I’m using precious energy to get my heart pumping, to breathe more rapidly, and to focus my cognitive ability on what I want to tell you.
Many of us live like this all the time because of constant input - going from meeting to meeting, working until 10pm, and then not sleeping well. You wake up the next morning without having restored the depleted energy. That’s going to lead to burnout, which is what happens when you constantly push your body to operate as if it's always under acute stress.
Reeva: What impact might this have in a group setting?
Alexandra: Stress is contagious, and it can be exacerbated by people in positions of authority or leadership. Think back to one of the times you've walked into a room with others present and you can literally feel the tension in the air. Something’s not quite right, which makes you feel awkward and uncomfortable. Perhaps there’s somebody in that meeting whose energy is changing the dynamics of how the team is interacting. Well, we now have scientific evidence to justify those feelings – we call this phenomenon: physiological synchrony. In essence, it is when your body picks up on minute social cues and your anxiety levels sync up with those around you – particularly figures of authority.
From an evolutionary point of view, we look to these leaders first because they might know something that we don't, about a threat for example. Your body is responsive because it wants to know how to best prepare for the situation you’ve just entered. So, it tunes itself to authority figures. If they have more perceived power, your body may instinctively think that they’re smarter and that they know something important. For example, they may have the inside scoop with your boss, know you’re all about to get fired and are signalling to you that it’s not safe inside that meeting room.
There’s definitely power to this. As leaders, we have the ability to impact and mitigate the stress levels of our teams – consciously or unconsciously. So, use that power wisely and create a more constructive environment for your team.
Join us later this week for Part 2 where we consider how to best manage our stress.
Sim Lamb is a Partner at Founders Keepers and the facilitator of the FK CPO Forum, a diverse global community for world-leading executive people leaders. If you would like to join the CPO forum or learn more, please contact Sim on email@example.com or +44 7415 146 917.
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