“Stress is a cockroach”
A new book by David Brown, consultant in ergonomics and occupational psychology Why is stress so difficult to treat, and even harder to prevent? Because we’re looking in the wrong direction, says David Brown, consultant in ergonomics and occupational psychology. If we stop looking for huge, terrifying causes and look instead at the little things we do every day, we’ll find that the answer was under our noses all along. David Brown speaks from more than 20 years of experience. His work with Dr Robin Mitchell on the treatment of pain at work has been translated into more than 27 languages. IBM liked their “Pocket Ergonomist” discomfort troubleshooter so much that they licensed it worldwide, and the New Zealand Government adopted it as an official publication. What people appreciate about David’s work is that he cuts through the complexity and misunderstanding, and explains what is really important. Now David has turned his razor to the stress industry. David says that it was 1978 when he first sensed that there was something wrong with the accepted views about stress. Early research on stress involved torturing animals until they died from stomach ulcers or other system failure. To keep research costs down, torture was intense so that death or illness would occur quickly and conveniently, in a few hours or days; whereas human stress is more commonly something that happens over weeks, months or years. David began to wonder whether this difference in timescale introduced a bias towards the dramatic. For instance, most books on stress will tell you that in our everyday dealings in the office, we are ready to kill the boss or to run screaming from the office. For nearly thirty years, everyone has assumed that this is true, but nobody has ever tested it! It turns out that a
person with a genuine “fight or flight” syndrome can be recognised by hair standing on end, going red all over, and having to run to the toilet smelling badly of faeces. David rudely asks, how often does this happen to you? To your friends? In fact, have you ever seen it happen? Probably never. Some people go through their entire lives without feeling “fight or flight”, but they might still die from stress. It turns out that the same areas of the brain that are involved in “fight or flight” are also involved in ordinary, everyday attention. Could it be that human stress, instead of being the result of a single overwhelming experience that caused a “fight or flight” reaction, might be something much smaller that happened much more often? Something as simple as the way that we use our attention, and how long we use it without a break? David’s work with sore muscles provided a valuable analogy. Sore muscles in the workplace are usually caused by invisible little things that we do all the time, and not by the dramatic things that only sometimes happen. We might keep our shoulders slightly raised as we work, because we didn’t adjust the chair high enough. After a few hours we notice that our shoulders are sore. In the same way, most stress at work is caused by small things that we might not even notice. Someone yells at us, and a week later we realise that we feel exhausted. The doctor tells us that it’s stress caused by that person at work. In fact the real cause has been the week of thoughts going around and around in our minds, saying “how dare they treat me like that!” Every thought produces a small emotional reaction; because we think it hundreds of times a day, the accumulation leaves us emotionally tired. So just as tired and sore muscles come from holding your muscles tight for too long without a rest, tired and sore emotions come from holding your attention tight for too long without a rest. And the type of attention that is tiring is “being ready to act”. Whether the job is demanding our attention or whether we’re being consumed by resentment, the result is the same – emotional tiredness. And with that simple analogy, David makes sense of the entire “stress” problem. After thousands of hours working with individuals in their own workplaces, using these ideas to help them to identify and resolve their own discomforts and stresses, in 1995 David wrote his findings into “The Pocket Stress Reliever” booklet. He then toured New Zealand with ergonomist Frank Darby running workshops titled “Pruning the Stress Tree”, to teach other professional how to use his approach. That workshop forms the basis of this new book. While David was running workshops, other stress researchers around the world were producing new and exciting results. Professor Michael Marmot found that British civil servants with control over their work had a much lower premature death rate than those at the bottom of the pecking order. Swedish studies found something similar, with much more heart disease and depression among people whose jobs didn’t give them control over their work. But we can’t solve the stress problem by promoting everyone, so what can be done with this information? David explains how control and attention are linked. If you have control over your work, you can finish it and get a spontaneous feeling of relaxation and pleasure. But if you don’t finish you’ll get more and more emotionally tired. It’s just like lifting weights. There’s no problem lifting a weight and putting it down, because your muscles relax naturally afterwards, but if you hold the weight up for too long you’ll become very tired.
A good job can be finished, a bad one can’t – for instance, if the job is so unclear that you don’t know when it’s done, it stays on your mind even if it’s off your desk. And every unfinished task uses up part of your attention. Get enough of them, and you’ll be so tied up that you can’t accomplish anything. So, the difference between a person who has control and one who doesn’t is simply that one can finish and know that the job won’t land back on their desk, and the other can’t. The other half of control is social, because people with control are usually higher on the social rank than those without. In a stable animal society, the animals at the bottom of the social hierarchy get picked on by everyone and have to be constantly alert, whereas the animals at the top lead a much more relaxed life. The result is the same with humans – those at the top are healthier and live longer than those at the bottom. Social instability, however, affects every animal in the pack. The happens with humans too – “the company is closing at the end of the year”, or there’s a new and aggressive staff member in the office, still trying to establish where they fit in the social rank. The key to solving this sort of stress with humans, says David, is to bring status struggles quickly to an end. You can have status struggles, you can even get angry, as long as you keep it short! This is a hands-on book. It contains a practical workbook that asks ten simple questions about your job – things like, “How many tasks do you have?” David explains how to deal with each issue, for instance how to chunk your work if there’s too much detail, or break it into bite-size bits if it looks like one huge mess. For counsellors who believe in counselling after accidents, David has a sobering account of an intervention that went wrong, and explains what really needs to be done to overcome trauma-induced fear. And he explains his “one day stress resolution”, bringing long standing stress problems to resolution in a single intense session.
This is a surprising book. Although it kills the sacred cows of stress – the “fight or flight” syndrome, the relaxation approach to stress, and others – it’s much more than a highly 3
entertaining romp through the follies of modern thinking. It shows us that “stress” is a new word for an old problem, and that we share the stress problem with chooks, monkeys and every social animal. And it helps us to reconnect with our traditional wisdom about life, to realise that we already know what to do to make our lives better, we just aren’t doing it. More than anything, it asks “do you want more control over your life – because that’s the single healthiest thing you can do for yourself”. Then it shows us how to get it, even within the existing system. Chapter by chapter Chapter One – the history of stress. Previous research Relaxing in the middle of the job – it’s a myth Control at work - even monkeys know it’s good for you Swedish studies – control and heart disease Whitehall studies – ‘rank’ and ‘premature death’ Chapter Two – how stress really works 1. Sustained Attention Finish the task, then you can relax Reducing the duration of attention 2. Prolonged Frustration Frustration – nature’s supercharger for physical tasks Interruptions and frustration Frustration of long term goals 3. Unending Status Struggles If you lose the status struggle You can leave the barnyard! 2 Chapter Three – why you get sick and your friend doesn’t Emotionality and changeability Type A, B and C personalities Chapter Four – you’re ‘stressed’, and you don’t know where to start Chapter Five – fear and trauma The Pocket Fear Eliminator program An example of fear elimination If your world has turned upside down Chapter Six – Lies and anger Chapter Seven - Your stress reduction workbook Q 1. Are you clear about the purpose of your job? Q2. How many tasks do you have? Q3. Deadlines? Q4. Do you take the job home with you? Q5. Name your worst task? Q6. Finishing your worst task? Q7. Duration and frequency of the worst task? Q8. Complexity of the worst task? Q9. Feelings about the worst task? Q10. Physical discomforts? Chapter Eight - The one-day stress resolution Chapter Nine – Key points for managers Chapter Ten – Key points for staff Chapter Eleven – Key points for counsellors