As stress becomes the chronic epidemic of our time, there is an overwhelming demand for strategies to manage the condition effectively. Health and performance educator Richard Sutton told a recent Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS) forum that while persistent stress can have a debilitating effect on health, in short bursts stress could offer tremendous opportunities to break personal barriers and to encourage growth.
“If we remove stress from our lives, we will not be the best versions of ourselves and won’t be performing at the best levels we can.” However, while stress is necessary as a motivator, many of our ways of coping with sustained stress are unhealthy, he said.
Sutton has advised top athletes, Olympic teams and international sporting federations in refining stress management solutions and mechanisms to develop resilience. In his book, The Stress Code, Sutton explores strategies for regulating stress and sustaining performance.
Sutton has begun applying the lessons from athletes competing at an international level to high-performance teams and individuals in the corporate world.
Stress is having devastating effects on the global economy, whether through reduced productivity or the increased burden on health care systems.
Sutton said many mental and physical health issues can be attributed to stress, and that South Africa is the second most stressed nation in the world according to a Bloomberg Business survey. Prolonged elevation of the stress hormone cortisol can result in depression, anxiety, poor concentration, impaired memory, and anti-social tendencies.
“Depression caused by stress is a real crisis and a threat to professional organisations. The true burden of stress and depression on organisations and the economy is not yet known,” he said.
Stress is more prevalent now than it was five years ago, Sutton added: “Technology has sped things up to the point where we feel completely out of control; and social media has created a complete disconnect.”
True interpersonal interaction changes our biochemistry, he explained, by facilitating the release of the hormone oxytocin, which provides a buffer against the adverse stresses and strains we are exposed to. Oxytocin is “the antivenom to stress hormones and we don’t produce enough anymore because we are on our phones trying to connect to people.”
Sutton encouraged people to recognise how they relate to others when in crisis: Instead of withdrawing to avoid demonstrating vulnerability or weakness, he suggested reaching out. “How we relate to people when we are in crisis is destroying our health. Oxytocin is released when we interact with people: It lowers the heart rate, counteracts cortisol and creates an emotional set of fearlessness, connectivity and positivity.”
Sutton explained that numerous studies had identified four primary drivers that induce stress and negative health outcomes:
- A lack of control over one’s work environment and life;
- A lack of support, which results in an increased risk of physical and mental health issues;
- A disconnect in the balance between effort and reward. This is critical for staff retention and can take the form of remuneration; perceived opportunities for future career advancement and appreciation, which is often lacking; and
- Injustice, or a lack of consistency. Inconsistency and a perceived lack of fairness were found to cause more stress than high demands in the workplace.
Staff at the lower levels of organisations were found to have worse health and higher stress levels than their leaders, as those in positions of authority had a degree of control over their decisions, creating a safety net. Sutton explained it was a leader’s responsibility to pass this on: “We can transform our reality, our businesses, and families. Leaders have the power to enable people – we need people to be successful,” he said.
This could be achieved by being supportive and encouraging mutual support; and by giving people more control, which “will change their lives.”
He added that people want to be part of the decision-making process and have a degree of authority in their environment. “It is not about the final decision, they want to make a contribution and to feel valued.”
In an increasingly stressed world, external factors aren’t likely to change, but our perception and the way we react are still within our control, Sutton explained.
“Stress is a perception. The fundamental tool in resilience is shifting your mindset. The mind is very powerful. Use it.”
In order to develop resilience, individuals need to change their outlook and to learn the skills that can provide a sense of reinforcement to their mental, emotional and physical state. Learning how to shut stress down is a skill that can be developed.
Short bursts of stress are not damaging, Sutton said. “Stress is not the enemy – it is there to create opportunities. While it may not be pleasant at the time, opportunities often arise through stress. But it is about shifting the situation from chronic stress that is debilitating to acute stress that is episodic and liberating.”