The stress test: mastering the art of successful change at work

By Clare Grist Taylor

We need to be alert to the stress potential inherent in workplace dynamics founded more on agility than stability.

In 1967, psychiatrists Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe conducted a large-scale research project into the relationship between 43 life events, what they called Life Change Units (LCU), and long-term stress or more serious mental illness. The result was the Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale, which is designed to measure how much stress load we carry, and how we might manage it. 

Not all LCUs carry the same weight – compare, for example, bereavement with a change in work responsibilities – but they are all cumulative, so that our ability to cope with the demands upon us is challenged when the demands multiply. For example, starting a new job is often an exciting and positive experience, but, if that change comes along while you’re also going through a divorce or a loved one is ill, then the transition might be more challenging. 

This speaks to the heart of what we know about stress. In itself, it’s not always a bad thing. As a primarily physical response, our “fight-flight-freeze” response has been a handy way for us humans to avoid existential threats ranging from woolly mammoths to a speeding car on a residential street. The sensation of such an adrenaline-fuelled heart-pounding, fast-breathing energy boost is still an essential reaction to truly life-threatening situations. 

In small doses, it can also keep us on our toes when we need to step up for that important work presentation or potentially game-winning shot. But it’s less helpful when our bodies go into a state of stress in inappropriate situations, or if we remain in a state of stress for long periods.

Because stress shuts down much-needed brain function, the ability to “think straight”, then remaining in a state of stress, or suffering from multiple stress factors at the same time, can be detrimental to our health. The Holmes and Rahe Scale is designed to identify and measure the impact of the kinds of triggers that might cause this to happen. 

A closer look at the scale also gives us an insight into those LCUs. Many – like the death of a partner or going to jail – are unequivocally negative. Others – such as a holiday or a change in responsibilities at work – are not necessarily so. All of them, however, involve a change or transition that might give us cause us to re-think our own identities and our relationships. 

This can be disorientating, leading to a feeling of helplessness, of a loss of control over our lives. It’s a feeling encapsulated in a commonly accepted definition of stress by psychologist Richard S Lazarus that sees stress as a condition or feeling experienced when a person perceives that "demands exceed the personal and social resources the individual is able to mobilize”.

Change and stress at work

It’s perhaps also not surprising that almost a quarter of LCUs involve changes and transitions associated with our working lives. After all, we spend a lot of time at work and, for better or worse, often feel defined by the work we do; the question, “what do you do?” is a common default opening gambit in any social situation. And as the boundaries between our work and non-working time become increasingly blurred, there’s an even greater chance that who we are is increasingly bound up with what we do for a living. 

Social identity theory offers some useful insights here. In the 1970s, social psychologists Henri Tajfel and John Turner suggested that a person’s sense of who they are is, at least in part, based on the groups to which they belong. This can lead to strong feelings of pride and self-esteem, a sense of social identity. While we can belong to several groups at the same time, the people we work with, whether a defined profession or simply a close-knit team, will often generate strong feelings of identity, of belonging. 

Little wonder, then, that transitions that interrupt this sense of identity – a redundancy, a promotion, a change in work responsibilities – can trigger that disorientation, feelings of a loss of control that can lead to stress. We tend to think of workplace stress in terms of overload, when a person is overwhelmed by workload or a particularly challenging task or situation. And that’s certainly a reality. 

However, psychologists have also charted the stress induced by interruptions at work, a disjunction caused between our best laid plans and an inability to see them through. And, as with those LCUs, the effects of interruptions can be cumulative, bringing even more stress if we are repeatedly interrupted doing something to which we feel committed. 

As we move away from more traditional work patterns and anticipate careers comprised of multiple job shifts and flexible working, we need to be alert to the stress potential inherent in workplace dynamics founded more on agility than stability. 

Channel your inner Nelson Mandela

2019 US Bureau of Labor Statistics survey showed that the average job tenure is declining for everyone, and is most marked for younger workers: of the jobs that workers began when they were 18 to 24 years of age, 70% of those jobs ended in less than a year and 93% ended in fewer than five years. It seems that, in some ways, we’re all part of the gig economy now, making our working lives feel more precarious – and potentially more stressful – as we navigate a greater number of working life transitions than we had to in the past. 

Given this context, it’s incumbent on leaders, now more than ever, to be alert to the fact that even the most positive-sounding changes to people’s working lives can be stressful and to help them to develop mitigation, coping and resilience strategies to manage those tricky transitions. 

The same goes for us as individuals. We need to channel our inner Nelson Mandela, who famously said: “Do not judge me by my success, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again.” 

That means developing the resilience to anticipate and tackle the tricky times likely to cause us stress and to be able to bounce back in the face of change and uncertainty. 

It means having the self-awareness and self-control to know that “we’ve got this”. Resilience is a life skill likely to be a game-changer as we navigate our new world of work. 

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