Science-backed ways to help break the stress cycle

Stressed? You’re not alone. The 2021 APA Work and Well-being Survey of adult U.S. workers found 79% experiencing workplace stress, and nearly 3 out of 5 reporting negative impacts of work-related stress, including lack of interest, motivation, or energy and lack of effort at work. A third also reported cognitive weariness, emotional exhaustion and physical fatigue which are key characteristics of psychological burnout.

There are a myriad of issues that cost your workers and your business if worker stress festers uncontrolled. Some affect shorter-term costs like productivity and turnover (note how burnout is associated with energy depletion and exhaustion, mental distancing from work, and feelings or negativity or cynicism related to one’s job), while others affect costs in other longer term ways through increased disease and healthcare costs (check out this recent NYT article summarizing how stress is an independent risk factor for chronic disease).

So stress is a problem, no doubt. But what do we do about it? The problem with stress is that it’s highly personal and situational. What one person perceives as stressful is different to another and something that might not affect you one day might totally stress you under different circumstances. Too often we’re led to believe we can either just get over it or push through it, or we’re told generic strategies like “just breath”… which in the moment seem about as useful as a spoon when you need to tool to shovel snow from your driveway. Too often we’re not given solid science-back reasoning to add credibility or purpose to the techniques we’re being told. Unless you know the mechanism behind why a strategy is helpful, not only might you be less inclined to do it, but you might not use the technique correctly for it to achieve its purpose.

A great example of this is mindfulness and meditation. Touted as the “it” thing to be doing to beat stress, most people don’t understand the neuroscience behind it, and without that context, their attempts to embrace it are often shallow, ineffective, and therefore unsatisfying and unsustainable. What could be an incredibly enlightening tool gets cast aside as something that “doesn’t work for me.”

That’s why understanding how stress works, in your brain, and specifically how simple techniques that can break the psychological and physiological loops can be game-changing for individuals, and by extension, organizations.

The basic physiological and psychological coupling of perceived and realized stress.

When you get nervous, a collection of physiological changes occurs in your body. Your heart rate increases, your muscles tense up, you start sweating, and you feel hyperaware of your surroundings. Your brain also names this collection of behaviors as a specific emotion: fear. You know this process as the “fight or flight” response – your body is getting ready to either fight or flee from a stressful situation.

What is currently unknown in neuroscience is which step in the fight or flight process comes first – does your brain identify the emotion of fear, which causes your body to initiate the fight or flight response? Or instead, does your body undergo the fight or flight response, which is then interpreted by your brain as fear? What is most likely the answer is a mixture of both – a positive feedback system wherein the brain influences the body and the body influences the brain.

Something else that can be confusing is the phenomenon that many emotions labelled by the brain can be expressed physically in the same way. For example, where fear elicits an increased heart rate and muscle tension, so does excitement. This means that the automatic mental interpretation of a physical response can be overruled by a conscious interpretation instead. Reinterpreting what initially might be fear as instead excitement may help you achieve better control over your own nervous system.

A large body of research suggests that even the understanding of this fact can help you handle your stress towards an event. However, the implications of this neurological process run further – just as you can consciously control your mental interpretation of your body, you can consciously control your body to influence your mental interpretation. To put it another way, physical behaviors can change your brain chemistry which makes it easier to regulate your psychological narrative, while your psychological narrative can also regulate your physical symptoms.

This is where many people fall short. Most people try to reduce their stress from only one side, that is, they either try to use an internal narrative to will themselves out of it, or they attempt a physiological relaxation technique while allowing their mind to continue to run wild. Each undermines the effectiveness. Understanding even the basics of the interplay between your thoughts and your physical arousal, and learning to address both sides in unison can be far more profound for managing stress and building resilience.

Learning to control your thoughts, focus, and internal narrative can take some practice, but it can be easier if you learn to calm the physiological response first. And it’s some of those physiological responses where relaxation techniques can be used to hack your nervous system, giving you a better chance of subsequently calming your thoughts: calm your body, remove the sensations of panic, and then focus on resetting the narrative.

This is WHY or HOW some of those relaxation techniques you’ve always be told can actually be used to break the stress cycle.

A key player involved in our perception of being relaxed is the vagus nerve – a large nerve that begins in your brain and runs throughout your body. When we take a deep breath and our heart rate slows, that’s the vagus nerve in action.

Research by Dr. Dacher Keltner has suggested that people with stronger vagal nerve responses have better connections with others and experience more positive emotions than those with weaker vagal nerve responses. Not only is the vagus nerve responsible for feeling relaxed, it also helps us communicate and empathize with others, counteracts inflammation, improves memory, and bolsters your body’s immune function…isn’t it interesting that these are all things that can enhance your health and workplace performance?

Learning to stimulate the vagus nerve can be powerful in counteracting the fight or flight stress response. Scientifically supported techniques for stimulating the vagus nerve includes:

Deep breaths: breath slowly and deeply from the belly. Exhale longer than you inhale – the exhale is what triggers the relaxation response

Loud gargling: gargling with water activates our vocal cords which is connected to the vagus nerve, so is in turn stimulated

Humming: when you hum you create an extended exhale which releases a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine. This neurotransmitter acts on the vagus nerve and helps you become more relaxed

Cold water face immersion: immerse your forehead, eyes, and cheeks into cold water. This elicits the vagus nerve through what’s known as the “Mammalian Dive Reflex” – when your body is submerged underwater, it will decrease the heart rate to conserve oxygen

Laughter: having a good laugh lifts your mood, boosts your immune system, and stimulates the vagus nerve

These are often recommended strategies to decrease stress. But most people don’t understand the neuroscience behind them, and without the the scientific explanation they’re easy to dismiss or ignore. The beauty of these evidence-based strategies is that most take next to no time. On their own they won’t completely solve your stress issues – but even breaking that internal stress cycle for a little bit can help give your brain and body a break, and that can start to help you reduce some of the negative things associated with stress and the constant “activation” of our stress response.

Properly helping employees learn about their stress responses along with practical personal strategies to recognize and break their own stress cycles, or to balance addressing stress from both the psychological and physiological sides together can significantly reduce the impact stress has on our collective health and performance.

If you want to improve stress management and unlock the potential of your team, contact us to learn how HBD uses the science of individual brain chemistry to develop one-of-a-kind executive health or team health and high-performance programs.

Re-imagining Work to Dodge the Great Resignation

Re-imagining the work environment to dodge The Great Resignation

You’re probably already sick of the term “The Great Resignation”, but even so, you can’t ignore it, and furthermore, you should be thinking of how to be proactive in order to limit its impact.

2021 saw a global shift in the labor force where workers have quit their jobs at historic rates. The reasons for this trend are varied, ranging from pandemic burnout to a psychological shift to seek greater fulfilment from work. Considering this labor market will most likely continue through 2022, we can consider why some industries are being affected by mass exodus compared to others that have maintained their employee relationship and fostered a positive work environment.

What sectors are seeing a wave of quitting?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average quit rate in the U.S. for November was 3%. That may not seem too high, but when you look at specific industries, some have been affected more than others. These industries include Leisure and Hospitality (6.4% quit rate), Professional and Business Services (3.7%), and Trade, Transportation, and Utilities (3.6%).

Despite hospitality and retail trade traditionally having a high turnover rate, these rates are still notably higher than previous years. While these industries were heavily impacted by the disruption of the pandemic, the pandemic also exposed how these trades failed to effectively support their workers. These two industries are low-wage and notorious in their maltreatment of employees, both internally and externally from patrons. The pandemic saw added pressure on this already challenging industry, where workers were accosted for enforcing COVID protocols or being slow when understaffed, all while putting themselves on the frontline and jeopardizing their own health. Consequently, many workers may have simply seen little motivation to return to these jobs where they were overworked and underpaid.

The high quit rate from professional and business services also raises questions as to the nature of the corporate profession and why people are no longer feeling fulfilled in this sector. While these careers offer more stability than hospitality and retail trade, they are not without flaws. During the pandemic, business services saw extended hours, inflexibility in child-care despite school closures, and a high stress environment without social entertainment to counteract work life. This resulted in workers re-evaluating their priorities in day-to-day life, with the consensus being a desire to dedicate more time to their families and life outside of work.

How to create a more supportive work environment for employees

The mass exodus is sending a signal to employers. Certain work standards that have been previously tolerated are now exposed as outdated and inflexible in the current climate. As a result, there is an imperative for employers to acknowledge this shift in worker values and adapt their work life expectations accordingly. While this includes systematic changes, such as flexibility to work remotely and extended time for leave, it also includes creating a genuine work environment that is committed to supporting employee wellbeing.

A supportive work environment can be fostered through developing a larger sense of belonging in the work community. The emphasis on creating a workforce with diversity, equity, and inclusion lends itself to the larger ethos of welcoming and valuing every employee for who they are. This removes the need for workers to intentionally hide aspects of themselves if they feel the need to fit in and downplay a stigmatized identity to belong.

Creating an environment where all people feel they belong not only removes the added labor of trying to hide certain aspects of themself, but also allows workers to contribute at their highest level by developing an affinity to the organization.

Work environments should also pivot away from the mantra of “business as usual”, as the reality is this is very much not business as usual. People are struggling, facing issues that range from illnesses and quarantines to financial instability and inconsistent childcare availability. It is important to recognize that previous business targets may no longer be reasonable in our current climate due to the added layers of stress on your employees. Businesses must make time for their employees and consider what additional support structures they can implement to help and encourage their team to be healthy first, and then productive. This could include accommodating flexible hours, working from home, redistributing resources, or providing extended leave where possible. The bottom line is for businesses to not drive out workers who are already stressed due to extraordinary circumstances and instead serve as a point of stability by accommodating their concerns.

Finally, it is important for businesses to be proactive in creating a culture of caring, focusing on the needs and wellbeing of their workers. People want to feel safe in their work environment and should be able to bring forward their concerns and strengths knowing that it will be heard by their leaders. Having leaders who displays empathy and who demonstrate a sense of caring makes people feel safe to be more vulnerable. People feel safer to speak up and work through barriers rather than simply giving up and trying to find an alternative place to work for fear of being judged or looking weak. Research demonstrates that caring about workers improves employee engagement, resulting in higher motivation, better performance, and greater likelihood to go above and beyond what is required of them.

Work norms in a post-COVID world

What is significant about the Great Resignation is not the fact that people are looking for new work, but the reasons for which they are leaving their previous work. These reasons are different to typical reasons of the past, where people are after more flexibility in working remotely, the ability to move from a 5-day working week to a 4-day week, extended time off, or wanting greater benefits and compensation packages. There’s a desire to establish a better work-life balance and have a work environment which is supportive in facilitating this. People also want to feel their work is connected to a meaningful purpose. These are extraordinary times, but perhaps a positive to come out of COVID-19 is the re-imagining of work standards which bring to the forefront the values of their workers.

HBD provides tailored programs that support employee health and wellbeing. Our programs have been shown to reduce stress, improve health, and improve employee engagement scores. We can develop programs for total populations, or specific groups such as managers or executives. If you want to improve the support you offer your people and improve metrics around health, mental health, and engagement, then we’d love to hear from you.