Pressure leads to narrow thinking

After years of commuting to work with an old minivan (it was really nice when I first bought it), I recently leased a midsize sedan. To say that it drives better than my old hunk of junk is an understatement. It handles well, doesn’t guzzle nearly as much gas, and is far more enjoyable to drive.

Despite all of these benefits, I am much more mindful about accidents than I used to be. The van, to be polite, is not in the best of shape anymore. It has its nicks and bruises, not to mention substantial underbelly rust from 15 combined Chicago/New Jersey winters. Any further damage at this point is not much of a big deal.

In contrast, when I drive the sedan I tend to tense up more quickly, grip the wheel with both hands more often and more firmly than before, while also pulling in my shoulders as if I can somehow make the car narrower that way. Though I took out a damage waiver on the car, I still want to preserve its pristine condition and have been driving much more defensively to avoid contact.

Nowhere is this truer than on the Goethals Bridge, a narrow, mile-plus expanse that links my state of New Jersey with Staten Island, N.Y. The bridge, which is currently in process of being replaced, is one of the narrowest major metropolitan bridges in the country. Its lanes are 10 feet wide (instead of the standard 12 feet) and there are no shoulders or emergency alcoves anywhere along it roadway.

It also gets plenty of commercial traffic, including wide vans and trucks. While the bridge has always been a challenge to drive on, I find myself doing so more gingerly, even with my narrower sedan, than I did with the van. It’s as if the divider and other cars have inched in even closer, moving me to often say a quiet prayer to get to the other side unscathed.

This change in my driving consciousness and the related physiological effects led me to think about the impact of psychological pressure in another context: the workplace. Workplace pressure is increasing all throughout the business world. According to this Business News Daily post, an Accountemps study revealed that well more than half of U.S. workers say their work-related stress levels have increased over the last five years. This is particularly true of younger workers, who are 5% more prone to feeling stressed at work than those ages 35 to 54. A bevy of things are to blame for this stress, including sizable workloads, pressure-filled deadlines, unrealistic expectations from bosses, and an unfulfilled desire to achieve healthy work-life balance. 

(This Telegraph article suggests that the reason for heightened stress amongst young workers may result from a perceived need to prove more about their worth to their employers. Another suggestion is that younger people may be more comfortable signaling and admitting to their stress. Others say that a leading factor may be that their life experiences to this point have not readied them for the rigors and harsh realities of employment.)

According to the American Psychological Association, work-related stress can lead to, amongst other things, headache, stomachache, sleep disturbances, short temper, anxiety, insomnia, depression, obesity and heart disease.

Stress in the workplace can have other damaging effects, such as stifling creativity and risk aversion. When we operate under pressure, we shift into survival mode and can have a much harder time thinking creatively and seeing things with a wider, longer term lens. Employees who are conditioned to work under stressful conditions are afraid of the consequences of bad decisions and will hesitate to make constructive suggestions or to pull the trigger on a good deal for fear of going belly up.

What can leaders and managers do to reduce stress in their workplaces?

  • Build a supportive culture. Culture and environment can make all the difference in how we feel about our workplace. Communicate that each worker is valued and that you are there to support them in their efforts.
  • Help with prioritization. Sometimes, stress is generated more by the volume of work that needs to get done than by the work itself. Contributing to the problem is that everything may seem important and a priority. By helping workers to understand what needs to get done when, they can approach their work more comfortably and systematically.
  • Offer choices. Wherever possible, give workers choice in terms of what they work on. The more we can choose, the more in control and less stressed we typically feel.
  • Provide instructions/build efficacy. New work can be hard for everyone. If you know that a particular task or assignment may be challenging, offer training and support, whether internal or at a live or online training.
  • Make work fun. Social events, group activities and team-building exercises are some of the ways to break down walls, bring folks together, and lighten the mood.
  • Educate. Sometimes we hold onto stress without even realizing it or knowing what we’re dealing with. Put it out in the open as a safe subject to discuss and consider ways by which to address it in house, such as with yoga classes, exercise options, and the like.

This post first appeared in SmartBrief on Leadership.

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