Change Work September 2012

Working yourself to death

Doesn't it seem that working is bad for you in so many ways?  Long hours wrecking your home life, skipping meals and losing sleep. The working day is, for so many people, an ordeal to be got through in return for the money you need to exist.

And now there's evidence that work will actually kill you.  Of course there have always been obviously dangerous jobs, with high risk of injury or death through accident.  But in addition, recent research* shows that any "stressful" job increases the worker's chances of suffering a heart attack by 23%.

In this research, many previous studies were combined to produce a total sample of 200,000 people, so the conclusion has to be taken seriously.  But what do they mean by "stressful"?  Well, it's found that the health risk arises for people in demanding jobs who also have little control over how they do their work.  And this combination can arise in any trade or profession from the highest paid to the lowest.

Regular readers of Change Work will know that stress is a subjective experience.  Circumstances that are distressing for one person may be perfectly comfortable for another.  So it's not always obvious who might be suffering stress, and hence at risk of serious illness, just from looking at their job demands.

And the immediate cause of stress for an individual at a particular time may not be in the job description at all - and may be different the following week.

The underlying problem here is how you respond to challenge.  Some people are motivated only by intense pressure.  Given a hard task and a tight deadline they'll pull out all the stops to deliver.  And they'll enjoy doing it.

Under the same circumstances, others will feel overwhelmed.  They may be frozen into inaction, with their attention fixed on the approaching deadline - and fear driving out any thoughts about what to actually do.  At worst they may become mentally or physically ill.

How is it possible for different people to experience the same situation in such completely different ways?

Well, I suppose there may be differences in their brains that trigger the release of alternative hormones that govern mood.  Even if this is the case, it doesn't necessarily mean that some of us are born to be stressed. There's plenty of evidence that the brain develops and adapts to the stimuli it receives - so you can't really distinguish between the hardware and the software. (I stand to be corrected by any neuroscientists reading this.) So it seems most likely that susceptibility to stress develops as we grow up. In other words we learn how to be stressed! Or, if we're lucky, we don't learn it.

Humans couldn't deal with the complexity of everyday life if they had to treat every piece of sensory data - what they see, hear and feel - as if it were completely new.  The process of learning is more than just storing facts.  It's also, perhaps mostly, about establishing patterns of thinking and acting that we can re-use whenever they're needed. 

Imagine sequences of mental steps that run automatically in response to their triggers. This is the "programming" part of Neuro-Linguistic Programming.  And, just like their computer counterparts, we don't take much notice of our mental programs as long as they're doing what we want them to.  But to keep your PC going, no matter how long you try to put it off, eventually you have to upgrade your software.  The old system will become out of date and increasingly incompatible with what you, and the internet, are throwing at it.

Now presumably, your stress response was established, long ago, in circumstances where it caused useful behaviours - such as escaping from a threatening situation.  But now maybe it's being triggered frequently by stimuli that have become part of everyday working life.

Time for an upgrade!

But how do you change your programs?

The key is to make them conscious.  When you learnt them originally you weren't aware that learning was taking place.  Now, programs run without any conscious intervention.  So you need to interrupt that automatic sequence and overwrite it with a new one that's more useful.

This requires a bit of know-how and some effort.  But it's easier than you might think. All you have to do is consciously, and carefully, think through the sequence that you want in a particular situation.  If you can act it out, so much the better.  Repeat that a few times and it will become the default, automatic response that completely replaces the old one.

What should the new sequence be?

Well for example, to avoid workplace stress that arises from someone else's behaviour, I'd recommend stopping the hurt/angry pattern and replacing it with curiosity: "I wonder why they did that?"  Or even better, "I wonder what the world must look like to them if doing what they did was their best choice." This shift in perspective, from how you feel to how they feel, puts you back in control.  And the research says that being in control removes the stress.

* The Lancet article is summarised in the Guardian