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POSITIVE SAFETY CULTURES: Is stress a friend or foe?

October 2, 2006
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The answer to the question in the title is “yes.”
When we perceive an event as a challenge or potential threat, a physical and psychological response is triggered by the autonomic nervous system. Whether the stressor is external (an oncoming car swerves into our lane) or internal (an anxiety-arousing thought), its onset abrupt (a sudden emergency) or gradual (a long-term unresolved problem), this automatic reaction is essentially the same.

Our heart rate and blood pressure increase, our breathing becomes more rapid and shallow, we might sweat, muscles tense, we may feel a knot in our stomach, etc. Researchers call this the general adaptation syndrome (GAS), commonly known as the “fight or flight” reaction.

Psychological responses accompany this automatic physiological change. Maybe we feel anxious, frightened, enraged, depressed, hyped up, or even ecstatic. The psychological response varies according to the nature of the stressor, but the physiological pattern remains essentially the same.

Here’s the rub

What if you’re unable to act quickly to fight or flee a stressor?

What if a marriage is failing, or a son or daughter is in trouble at school? Maybe you’re confronted by an aggressive and negative co-worker. Or your OSHA recordables are rising and your boss demands that, as the safety guy, “you fix it – now!”

Welcome to modern life. When you can’t fight or flee, the “on” switch for the GAS stays activated. Prolonged activation of the GAS can lead to chronic hypertension, cardio-vascular disease, gastro-intestinal disorders (such as ulcers), and migraine headaches. Such disorders have classically been identified as “psychosomatic.” This doesn’t mean “all in your mind.” It describes a bodily (somatic) breakdown due in part to psychological causes. Physicians widely believe stress is a major contributing cause of a whole range of other physical disorders, including cancer. Stress is also implicated as a causal factor in various forms of mental disorder. Stress-related physical or psychological breakdowns are in turn a cause of lost workdays and lowered productivity, not to mention lowered overall quality of life.

Critical from the occupational safety and health perspective, stress contributes substantially to attention lapses, missed steps and unsafe acts. There is a good reason that crew resource management (CRM) training programs in aviation and the nuclear industry include modules on stress.

Here’s another reality of modern life: stressors are often concurrent, and their effects are cumulative. Everyone knows the old adage, “leave your family problems at home and your business problems at work.” That sounds fine, of course, but it’s mostly an unattainable ideal. Stressors all act in the same way, and produce in us the same reaction — the GAS. Once in a CRM training session I heard a participant pilot say, “The worst pilot to be flying with is one who is having trouble at home.” Indeed.

Now the good news

Before I convince you that you and I are going to die any second now, or at least suffer a major physical and psychological blow from stress, let me try to make the case that stress can actually be a friend.

“Some friend!” you may be thinking.

More than 100 years ago researchers noted that in order to perform physical or mental tasks at our best, we must experience a certain level of internal “arousal.” We don’t do our best if we’re too laid back. The same goes for being too hyped up. Athletes who are “not up” or are “too up” for the game have the same performance problem — they make mistakes and they can’t do their best.

Coaches and athletes talk about the need to “get the adrenaline flowing” for a team to do its best. Interestingly, adrenaline is in fact one of the main chemical activators of the GAS. A key role of a coach is to have his/her players “ready,” not only in terms of physical skills, practice and conditioning, but in terms of motivation. Too little adrenaline and we lose (“We didn’t take our opponent seriously… we were flat… we didn’t show up…”). Too much adrenaline and we lose (“We were too tight … we made stupid mistakes… lost our composure… “). Different feeling, same result.

In the workplace

The same holds true for our everyday performance at work. The proper goal of stress management is not zero stress. We’ll all get to the only true and lasting stress-free state soon enough. The goal of stress management is to have an optimal level of arousal, often labeled “eustress.” The right amount of positive stress is essential if we’re to focus, work safe, and do our best. This is in contrast to “distress” — the negative, harmful, excessive level of stress. We need enough arousal and activation to be engaged, mindful, fully in the game, performing at our safest and best. Balance, as usual, is the key.

Different individuals can have very different thresholds for experiencing distress. Some of us are more resilient or hardy, more resistant to stress than others. It’s a bonus if we happen to be wired that way. But even the hardiest among us have our limits. However we happen to be wired, what can we do when we’re under too much stress and at risk for negative effects of “distress”? Stay tuned for “Stress Management 101” in my December ISHN column.

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