The Everyday Stress

person in distress painting

Last night the Oscars took place, with all the glamour, drama and slaps. The good old Hollywood never disappoints in this ceremony. Initially, I thought it was all part of the show but later learned that the consequences may be underway.

You may wonder how a joke could trigger such a reaction. We could debate the lack of taste of that joke, but it is hard to argue that it seemed harmless.

How could someone go from 8 to 80 with just a single drop of water?

All people have two personas, two personalities.

We use our natural personality when we are with our family, loved ones, and close friends. At work or in other specific scenarios, we use the adapted character. We adapt to fit in that particular environment. Let’s say to play by the organisation’s rules, perform in a way that the team expects, and so on.

I like to believe that the difference between the two is slight, but I always say, humans are a strange breed. I met people who had an adapted personality far apart from their natural one. I never understood how they spent so much time playing such a different role in their own lives.

Ok, right now, you may be asking where does this topic have in common with Will Smith’s smack. I will not make you wait any longer. Allow me to enlighten you.

Indeed people have two different personas, but the kernel is the same. We do not have two separate stress “deposits”. We can’t separate our level of stress by personality.

In 1967, two American psychiatrists, Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe, published the “Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale”. This scale includes 43 life events that belong to the top list of external stressors. At the top of the list is the death of a spouse – stress level 100, and at the bottom of the list is a minor infraction of the law, let’s say a parking ticket – stress level 11. In between, we find a divorce, marriage, getting fired, problems with relatives, issues with a boss, etc.

These two scientists proposed that we should regularly evaluate our life and gather all the life events that were prone to stress and do the math. The higher, and the longer the exposure to stress, the more prone to momentaneous meltdowns and health risks.

You’ve probably found yourself in moments where a minor setback made you burst entirely out of your mind. Maybe you have already witnessed some road rage. Or perhaps you’ve testified a colleague having a meltdown just because the code didn’t compile. All these situations seem harmless and it is difficult to understand if the reaction was just triggered by that particular thing.

That’s why it is vital to be attentive to our people, even when stress at work is healthy, just good enough to leave people on their toes, fully committed to the team and the process, and people seem happy, and everything is good. Someone in your unit may be on the brink of a meltdown.

Let me recap what I wrote two paragraphs ago. People can’t separate their personal life from their work life, even when we present a different persona at work. People may be smiling, working apparently in their everyday performance level, but inside they may be just a drop away from a burst.

So, don’t be surprised whenever you feel the urge for some stormy reaction or if you find someone on your team going all-in. We just can’t handle that much pressure.

I’m not suggesting that you start playing a Sherlock Holmes trying to investigate your people’s lives. Create a safe and trustworthy environment, allow your people to feel safe during your 1:1s. And maybe, just maybe, they will share with you what is going on in their personal life. 

“But, what should I do if they start sharing too much of their nightmare?”

In my personal experience, I’ve faced some tough 1:1s. Then the COVID pandemic brought a new level of stress for people and some meetings were so emotional that I doubted I wanted to be responsible for people and teams.

But in those moments, just listen without judgment. And perhaps, you find yourself in a position to give that person some slack on the stress related to work, just for the time being. And it may be that much of a difference in your people’s lives.

Yours truly,

Ricardo Castelhano