Why stress shouldn’t be the accepted norm of crisis leadership

Being permanently in ‘fight or flight’ mode inhibits the immune system and our ability to create a compelling vision for the future, warns Karen Beaven

The NHS defines stress as “the body's reaction to feeling threatened or under pressure”. It’s a state of physical, mental or emotional strain or tension that results from adverse or very demanding circumstances. No surprise, then, that stress levels for most people are off the charts at the moment. With no obvious end in sight to the unprecedented challenges facing business today, are we now at a point where stress has become an accepted norm of leadership?

From scientific evidence, we know the long-term impact of stress is equal to a toxin that is incredibly damaging on a physical and psychological level. So it’s worth considering the role of HR professionals in mitigating this both for ourselves and for the leaders we support. If we accept long-term stress as a new norm, are we in fact endorsing a way of working that could be destructive both for the organisations we support and the people working within them?

Stress does have benefits as a short-term reaction, but it’s important to be aware of how different kinds of stress cause long-term effects on our brain and body. Typically, stress is created when you can’t predict a future outcome or feel you can’t control a situation. It also shows up when you perceive a threat or danger – or when you feel things are getting worse in your world and you can’t see a way to turn them around. But it’s important to remember that, while you can’t control everything that happens in your life, it is possible to learn how to control your thoughts and feelings and how you respond to events. 

There are three types of stress: physical (trauma, accidents and injuries), chemical (bacterial infections, viruses, refined sugar and everyday toxins) and emotional (arising from personal tragedy, financial problems, the pressures of work and conflict). All of these have the potential to shift your brain and body out of balance and into a stress response. We’ve all heard of the fight or flight response. This is where the body begins to mobilise large amounts of energy and resources to support real life-or-death situations. In this state we’re in survival mode and our physiology responds: our heart and respiratory rates increase, with blood sent to our extremities so we can run or fight. Our digestive and reproductive systems slow because now is not the time to eat or procreate. When the danger has passed, our body needs to repair, regenerate and conserve energy. 

But what if you’re in a state of fight or flight and it’s not a predator? What if it's a situation at work – something that isn’t going to pass in 30 minutes? This once highly effective response becomes destructive because you can't turn it off. Therefore, you don’t get the chance to repair or regain your energy for the essential functions of your body and mind. In this scenario, the state of stress can become normalised as ‘just how things are’. Consider the long-term impact of a business leader operating in ‘survival mode’ with no way of optimising their physical and mental health until the stressor is removed. There is a theory that someone living in a constant state of stress can become conditioned to the rush of chemicals. When that happens there’s a risk stress actually becomes a habit. 

It’s also worth remembering stress hormones can impact your immune system. In organ transplant surgery, corticosteroids are used to inhibit the body's immune response so a transplanted organ is not rejected. Again, consider the impact of this for individuals operating in stress for a sustained period. This a key factor in why we should not accept sustained stress as the norm of leadership. To really be an effective leader, especially in times of crisis, you need to be in optimal physical and mental health so you’re in a position to do your best work. 

And when you're living in high stress, your focus is on responding to the perceived threat. It's not a time to create or learn anything new. It's not a time to sit still and reflect, or to create a compelling future vision. People living in stress crave the known and attempt to get back to familiar routines or processes; when you’re in survival mode you naturally look for security, not uncertainty. This is clearly not a position you want the leader of any business to be in.

To break the stress habit cycle we need to find ways to trade those ‘survival’ emotions for more elevated ones such as gratitude, appreciation, kindness, love for life, optimism and joy. Activities and information to support this can easily be incorporated into a wellbeing programme, but also need to be role modelled by leadership and all those responsible for creating and delivering such programmes. This should not be considered as a ‘wellbeing initiative’ or project. It should be part of standard business practice and incorporated into leadership development programmes.

During stress, the brain and body are knocked out of balance. So let’s aim to get beyond the narrative that sustained stress is normal and just part of leadership. We need to help people kick the stress habit and create the coherence in their brain and body needed for sustainable high performance instead.

Karen Beaven is an HR coach, mentor, author and former HR director