Barbara Parker says stress is having a devastating effect on the workforce and on the bottom line
Disruptive and rapidly changing technologies. An always-on, ever-connected culture. The radical impact of Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) on society. Plus, economic and political concerns. Is it any wonder that individuals - and entire work forces - are highly stressed?
“The human cost is huge, and there’s a significant cost to business, too. Workforces are becoming functionally unemployable due to stress and stress-related illnesses,” said Barbara Parker of Meditation for Business Stress, who was speaking at the HR Indaba in Sandton.
“Companies find themselves with fraught and anxiety ridden employees. Nothing kills productivity and profits faster than this pandemic of chronically stressed workers. Business, markets and economies have a financial interest in mental health.”
So how do businesses, and HR professionals in particular, deal with this problem?
Barbara said the first step was to understand the neurological basis for stress. What happens in the brain and body? She gave the example of a person encountering a lion. The body is flooded with stress hormones. Breathing quickens. Blood vessels constrict. Higher order functioning is reduced, as the body shifts into reactive mode. When you see a lion, you are no longer thinking, you are reacting.
Those stress responses are pretty handy in the face of a wild beast, but less so in daily life. Your body reacts, not only to external threats like the lion, but to thoughts, Parker explained.
“The thinking planning brain shuts down, the impulse, reptilian brain takes over.”
This can result in aggressive and defensive behaviour, low impulse control, poor decision-making and poor planning. Highly stressed individuals might have chronic fatigue and burn out. In the work environment, there may be a rise in absenteeism or in what’s being termed “presenteeism” - they are there but not engaged. Not a helpful set of behaviours. Or as Parker put it, “If you are snap, crackle and popping from your reptilian brain, you are unemployable.”
What to do?
Parker advised that HR has to understand 4IR and its effects on the workforce; to identify, monitor and manage potential stress triggers; to understand how the brain works; and to take steps to build a resilient team. Resilience is the number one “soft” skill to work on, she said. Resilient people have qualities like calm, rationality, accountability, able to motivate themselves and others, not sweating the small stuff. Investing in people is going to be key to the commercially successful navigation of this new era.
She added that business is beginning to take a more organic, holistic view of people rather than a mechanistic view, of people as cogs and wheels in a machine.
There are tools that can help. Bio-mastery, Parker explained, is the contemporary term for meditation and it refers to the ability to self-manage the fear centres of the brain, in particular the autonomic nervous system.
“The key is being able to manage the thought process. To change your thoughts, build a positive world view.”
It is possible, she says, to prevent the amygdala from accessing negative thoughts, and to increase the executive hormones and chemicals dopamine, oxytocin, endorphins and serotonin.”
Parker outlined nine different methods that can be helpful in bio-mastery: Breath, Contemplation, Digestion, Gratitude, Compassion, Relaxation, Sensory attention, Concentration, and Actualisation.
“It is an acquired skill, but it’s very effective and cost-effective,” said Parker. And if you succeed, your team will be resilient, calm, productive - and able to survive and thrive the 4IR environment.