HR Indaba Network keynote highlights how stress and uncertainty can support your game plan

Performance expert Richard Sutton says the discomfort we’re living with can be a tool for success.

A packed virtual auditorium greeted performance expert Richard Sutton, who hosted the first Impact Session of the gamified HR Indaba Online 2021, titled The Game Plan: how to turn stress and uncertainty into resilience and success.

The best-selling author and stress expert reframed the ground rules for working with people and revealed key factors that will shape successful HR strategies for the future.

“We have faced relentless pressures, relentless stress and it’s not the end. It’s an environment we will be in for several years,” said Richard. “We will be dealing with the economic and social impact for decades to come.”

Richard explained that the obvious assumption of Covid-19 being the cause of this relentless pressure was incorrect. “This is not new,” he said. “Worry, stress and fear had already started to emerge in 2019. Covid-19 almost provided an acceleration of the trajectory that we were already on and created exponential change.”

The challenge, according to Richard, arises when a system has to deal with elevated levels of stress for a prolonged period. “Cortisol is the main stress hormone and it affects the nervous, brain and digestive systems,” he said. “These systems have a finite ability to cope with cortisol and long-term, this results in immune suppression. The most profound effect of long periods of stress is the potential to atrophy seven regions of the brain.”

Personal strategy
Current research points to the younger generation experiencing the highest stress-related issues, with 91 percent of Gen Zs dealing with stress-related mental, physical and emotional health issues. It is within this context that Richard provided key insights and reframed the ground rules for working with people both in a personal and professional capacity.

“In the current world, we can’t take a tactical approach. The future is uncertain and 4IR is superimposed on Covid-19, so we have to be strategic in looking after ourselves to benefit others,” he said.

This game plan or personal strategy comprises four components: mindset, behaviour, turning stress off and rebuilding.
“When you change your mindset, you change your neurochemistry and that makes you more adaptable and focused. Then you can recalibrate and reframe the context. There is opportunity for growth. This is how stress helped our ancestors overcome hostile environments,” he explained.

Richard noted that the knee-jerk reaction of humans faced with stress is to withdraw, as society has zero tolerance for weakness and vulnerability. “From an ancestral perspective, we banded together to share experiences and our survival was completely dependent on reaching out in times of crisis. This coming together alters our chemistry and we release oxytocin, which makes us feel more connected,” he said.

Although we have little control over major factors at the moment, Richard highlighted that it is possible to turn stress off. “When the brain detects elevated stress hormones, the body has the ability to shut it down. This is through the vagus nerve, which, when activated, releases chemicals that turn off stress. So activities like deep breathing, yoga, meditation or splashing cold water on your face are ways to gain control of stress axes,” he said.

The game plan is then dependent on being proactive and making choices that determine our reality both personally and professionally. This, according to Richard, also pays off for organisations that want to turn stress and uncertainty into resilience and success.

“The return on investment for a well-crafted wellness plan is 600 percent,” he said.