We Cannot Thrive in Survival Mode
For the past month, I have struggled to watch TV. Pictures and stories of the victims of Harvey, then Irma, break my heart and remind me of when my family went through Hurricane Andrew 25 years ago.
I am all too familiar with the fear of the storm and the despair that sets in immediately afterward. But shockingly, it isn’t the storm itself that does the most damage to us. What knocks us to our knees is the aftermath of being in such a high stress environment for so long. Sometimes it takes months, even years, to recover from such a devastating disaster, and that lengthy period of recovery often leaves us permanently battered and bruised.
Really big “things” like hurricanes, tsunamis, even war, are scary, yet we have difficulty wrapping our heads around their true potential for emotional damage. We figure we can withstand the physical damage - that’s why we stay - but we poorly misjudge the toll high-stress environments have on us mentally and emotionally.
We rationalize that the impact can’t possibly be that bad and convince ourselves and loved ones that we can tough it out. That rationalization sounds a lot like why many of us stay in high stress, emotionally or physically taxing jobs.
For example, a job description might say 40 percent travel, but then it is bumped to 70 percent, indefinitely. The long hours start for a month or two, but then orders start piling up and people are told to pull 70-hour work weeks, indefinitely. You’re told of a new building with better work conditions, but given no date, so you sweat and struggle, indefinitely. And when people start to complain, their voices aren’t seen as ones of reason, but rather as threats to the system. Those who stay in the demanding conditions are seen as heroes, while those who leave, well, they clearly weren’t team players.
I caution leaders who lead this way. High-stress environments that go on indefinitely can do severe damage to people. It’s no different than a hurricane. Yes, people do survive natural disasters, but they can’t thrive in them. Why? Because we cannot thrive in survival mode.
When our main focus is for basic safety, the brain struggles to tap into its higher centers for happiness, creativity and innovation. The primitive brain runs the show and feeds off adrenaline and cortisol. And when cortisol remains high, it physically begins to break us down, indefinitely.
We are bad judges when it comes to determining our stress levels and when we’ve taken on too much. Stress isn’t a mental thing. It’s a real, physiological, chemistry thing that affects our physical state. It’s insidious because it’s not often easy to identify and we tend to blame ourselves for not being “strong enough” to handle it.
Stress is like hurricane winds. Category 1 is like dealing with a difficult boss. Category 2 is a difficult boss and a 60-hour work week. Category 3 is a bad co-worker and boss, plus marital issues and a 60-hour work week. At this point, if you haven’t considered packing the car, you’re headed for grave danger.
On Aug. 31, 2017, CNN posted an article discussing the top health issue they are predicting the victims of Harvey will face. Guess what it is? Yes, it is mental health issues from such lengthy and severe levels of stress.
As I drive through the streets of downtown Savannah, GA, I see the reminders of our own Matthew and Irma, whose high winds and rain twisted and bent and snapped so many of the giant mighty oaks our city is known for. The stress took its toll on them.
Yes, most of them are still standing, but they are weathered and worn and not quite as mighty as they once were. They took on a hurricane and will probably face another in years to come, but it will always come with a price. Always.
Be a good leader and keep your workplace hurricane-free. Do not indefinitely put people through chronic stress. It will hurt both you and them. And when the voices of discontent speak out, listen to them, for they are your own Jim Cantores, trying to warn you of what’s to come. - Davana Pilczuk, Ph.D