Saturday, May 22, 2010

Getting along with stress

Stress is part and parcel of active life. You can’t but welcome stress if you’re alive and active.
In fact, experts say stress is useful as a work-life morale booster. But there is another kind
of stress that results in distress, fatigue, emotional disorders, mental breakdowns,
and other health problems. That is the monster all leaders should learn to manage.

Some years ago, Ghana’s Jerry Rawlings collapsed on state duty. By his fall, the handsome former airforce pilot, who was president at that time, made a breath-taking scene. He fell for no apparent reason. He just went blank and off. Later, after the charismatic leader had come round, he gave the bewildered public the reason why he suddenly pined out: He had been working for years without leave! Praise God, Rawlings strayed into death’s orbit and walked away alive. But you can’t be sure you would if you tried! The airforce officer was felled by stress; and leaders who failed to manage stress would fall ill and go down in like manner.

Stress is part and parcel of active life. You can’t but welcome stress if you’re alive and active. In fact, experts say stress is useful as a work-life morale booster. In his book, Leadership, Anthony D’souza of the Haggai Institute, says: “Not all stress is bad. Stress wakes us up and gets us going”. This is the type of stress that helps pump you up with adrenaline, keeping all your body lights on when you have some urgent tasks to perform or you’re in frenetic pursuit of a vision with a close deadline.

Stress at such a time is a booster helpmate, giving you the needed high. It is positive stress called “eustress” and all effective leaders need it! It is a natural concomitant of active leadership; and some of us leaders are on high gear when pressure is put on us at full throttle.

But there’s another kind of stress that results in distress, fatigue, emotional disorders, mental breakdowns, physical wear and tear, low productivity and sundry health problems. That’s the stress that rattled Rawlings. It’s the monster all leaders should learn to manage. The monster is a creation of exposure to continuous or prolonged stressful situations. Short-term or seasonal stress is a boon to effective leadership. But where stress is allowed to assume a permanent feature of leadership practice, it puts the leader’s health and productivity in jeopardy.

Experts say people show symptoms of stress depending on their psychological characteristics and the variety of stressful situations they suffer. The lists of symptoms are long but inexhaustive. In an article he wrote for Healthwise (2005), Stuart J. Bryson listed seven physiological stress-related problems: Rapid heart-beat, headache, stiff neck, tight shoulders, backache, rapid breathing, sweating and clammy palms, nausea or diarrhoea. Anthony D’souza (1989) added “muscle tension or spasms, hypertension, coronary heart-disease, ulcers, insomnia, skin rashes, dizziness or blurred vision, gum disease, excessive tiredness, blood and hormonal changes”. Enough sicknesses to kill the strongest of all leaders!
Stress also produces such psychological problems as tenseness, sadness, boredom, temper flares, worry, depression, inferiority complex, and fuzziness.

Nor does stress spare your behaviour. While suffering from its effects, you would experience behavioural shifts from conviction to indecision, clear thinking to confusion, attentiveness to poor concentration, calmness to haste, rationality to impulsive behaviour, accommodation to intolerance, and moderation to intemperance. Your problem-coping power may dip and frustration set in. Also, your relationship with your family and society might be affected by the carry-overs of stress-induced behavioural problems. For all the problems it could unleash on the human life, stress is a negative experience all leaders should wish didn’t exist. However, the world is a stress arena. It pulsates with stress and we can only learn to cope with it, not wish it away.

The first step in coping with stress is knowing what it really is. The psychology of stress holds that stress isn’t influence of a bad occurrence. It’s your mind’s response to your body’s protest against stressful situations (stressors). If your mind interprets the situations negatively, stress results, with its symptoms. D’souza says “stress is an anxiety reaction to the way people look at what happens to them”. I’m afraid this is a dangerous conceptualisation of stress. If we operationalise stress as a function of the mind, we risk overlooking its external factors. We might reason: a leader may carry on as he will so long as he has programmed his mind to call billows bliss and view problems as pleasures, he will suffer no hurt. I don’t think you can always fool your mind so as to stretch your body beyond its elastic limits. No matter how good you are at mind conditioning, if you stretch the body beyond its capacity it would snap.

The mind may toughen the body to the extent that the body is capable of accepting the hardening. The human mind seems to know this; and when it tells the body it’s biting more than it can chew, stress is looming. One way you might cope with stress is to toughen your mind and condition it to be realistically positive about the crosses of leadership. But while you’re trying to do this, cut your duties according to your strength. That implies having a correct assessment of your stress-coping ability; for too much work invites stress. Now, what is too much for Rawlings may be too little for me! Gabrielle Reece (2007) says “one person’s stress is another’s holidays”. Quoting Hans Selye, the world’s leading stress expert, D’souza (1989) says that “if people are race horses, they will find great stress in trying to live the life of turtles”. On the flip side, “if people are turtles trying to keep up with the race horses also leads to burn-out”. Thus, as regards stress, what is safe for the goose may be dangerous for the gander.

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