High Stress Became Normal



Judith M. Bardwick, Ph.D.

Conditions of peacetime—of little and moderate change, relatively low risk and low volatility, reasonable security, dependability and predictability, and promotions and raises tied to seniority are being replaced by swift and major change, high risk and volatility, insecurity and unpredictability.  In other words, peacetime conditions are being replaced by those of wartime.

During the 1980s, IBM, that stalwart of capitalism, fell on hard times. Powerful competitors, including upstarts from Silicon Valley like Apple Computers or Sun Microsystems, were replacing IBM’s mainframes with smaller, powerful machines while global competition was displacing IBM from the top of the computer heap. IBM’s core principle of “Respect for the Individual,” which really meant job security for life, was in the process of becoming unsupportable. The first efforts to increase flexibility and get costs down were early retirement packages; the corporation tried to be kind.

For many years I lectured in a large auditorium at IBM’s Management School in Armonk, New York.  The architecture and the setting of the school were designed to express the corporation’s commitment to its employees. The grounds were idyllic with paths through the woods; buildings were modern, built of field stone, simple and elegant at the same time. Even I, an outsider, felt enormous pride as a sort of IBMer, as I joined with management to teach in the school.

As the new problems weren’t solved in one year or three, and market share and profits continued to fall, retirement packages were followed by layoffs.  Employee confidence in the corporation was replaced by uncertainty and a view of a rock-solid world gave way to doubts and anxiety.  As the large auditorium in Armonk filled with employees, I could almost see a cloud of brown funk arise from the bodies of the people in the audience and it stayed there, hovering and discoloring the mood, throughout the four hours of the session.

In the 1980s I had the same experience at Hewlett-Packard and AT&T and many other famed bastions of job life security.  During the ‘80s and through the 1990s, what had been unthinkable was becoming commonplace; layoffs, job insecurity, rising performance requirements with fewer people to do the work—became ordinary.

The source of good news and the bad news is the same: technology has made a lot of work easier and more interesting and we can communicate instantly with anyone, anywhere in the world.  It is ironic that at the same time, that same technology created levels of competition and speed and performance that contribute to chronic anxiety and continuous stress.

Information Technology, Information Systems, the Internet and the Web—all the drivers of the racing-speed, ultra-competitive borderless economy—are new. But people are old.  Human beings have been around for an enormously long time.  Over the millennia, our species developed basic human needs.

There are core needs that people need to satisfy in order for them to operate at their best. People want to belong; they want a sense of community and trust.  They need some sense of stability and security.  They want to be loved in intimate relationships and they want to work in organizations that are responsive to their needs.  People want to be able to earn enough respect so that their opinion is sought on issues they know about or which impact them.  Most people want to be recognized when they’ve done something significant and most people want their work to matter.  We’re wired to learn so it’s not surprising that most adults want to keep on “growing.”  And people want a level playing field; they want their world to be understandable, just and fair.

It is human nature for people to want some sense of predictability, of certainty and control. In order to thrive, the great majority of people need to feel they have considerable control over what’s happening to them. Predictability, certainty and control are exactly what are lost in the borderless economy. In addition to the stresses generated by ever-increasing performance requirements, wartime is inherently stressful because the human need for control is continuously assaulted by escalating change. For most people, that’s exhausting.  Prolonged exhaustion is not conducive to high performance or innovation and its hell on wheels to relationships, physical health and psychological well-being.

In the new reality, the human need for control is continuously assaulted by escalating change.  Many people are experiencing chronic high levels of performance pressure along with sustained uncertainty.  That’s exhausting.  Prolonged exhaustion is not conducive to high performance or innovation and its hell on wheels to relationships, physical health and psychological well-being.

In two books, Danger in the Comfort Zone and In Praise of Good Business, I explained why each person has a range of risk and pressure that is comfortable for him or her.[1] Yerkes-Dodson is a simple and powerful psychological law that states that performance levels rise as fear and pressure increase from zero up to their optimal levels.  If fear and pressure climb higher than what is comfortable for that person, in that situation, performance declines.

In other words, when fear and pressure are either too low or too high for that person, performance is poor. People work best and are most productive when external pressures are within their individual range of comfort. Most people now live in a world where chronic pressures, uncertainties, fears and risk are much higher than they can reasonably handle .

Despite the reality of our immersion in the borderless economy, the majority of people unconsciously assume they have control over their life.  People live their lives – they take out thirty-year mortgages – as if that was true.  The power of the World Trade Center “bombings” was its assault on the sense that the world is understandable, rational and controllable.

Our sense of well-being is endangered when the past is of little help in understanding the present and yet we have to make decisions and act on them.  Our sensibility, our very understanding of the world and of business is under assault and in flux.

In the new reality, it’s a funny line when we say, “A five-year plan has no purpose except to employ a strategic planner.” But that’s actually a very serious observation.  Many of our most admired and influential business leaders have observed that they often feel like they’re a small ship being tossed around in turbulent seas… or they’re racing cars where there are no road signs… which makes it impossible to feel they’re in control or know where they are, much less where they’re going.[2]

There are, then, lots of reasons for people to feel stressed: People are stressed by technology revolutions and ever-rising performance expectations.  Decisions have to be made fast – often without adequate data and analyses. The stock market is extremely volatile, and no one knows how interdependent global economies will be impacted by slowing economies if only in just a few major players.

In organizations that have eliminated a significant percentage of jobs, the survivors are expected to do the work of those who are gone.  The hours worked keep rising and desktops are never clean.  That makes it hard to get any sense of achievement and job satisfaction.

In a long-term crisis mode, people get paranoid.  They grab territory and create alliances.  They tune into rumors and chat rooms.  They look busy but they don’t get a lot done.  Many don’t take vacations, and, of those who do, the majority, 83 percent in a recent study, keep in touch with the office.[3]  The lack of real downtime is adding to people’s mental fatigue: too many people are never off duty because communication technologies rob them of the opportunity to be totally away from the rising demands of their universe.

While technology’s borderless economy is permanent, conditions of chronic stress are not sustainable.  High levels of chronic stress debilitate people and make them unproductive, uncommitted and uninvolved.  In order to reduce stress, we have to understand where it’s coming from.  The first step towards creating solutions is to gain clarity about a problem.  We have to see reality clearly in order to redesign what can and ought to be changed. No one and no organization can afford unhealthy levels of chronic stress because motivation and productivity will crash.

[1] Bardwick, Judith M. Ph.D, Danger in the Comfort Zone, AMACOM, New York, 1991 & 1994, and In Praise of Good Business, John Wiley & Sons, New York, 1998.

[2] Garten, Jeffrey E., “The Mind of the C.E.O.”, Business Week, February 5, 2001, pp. 106-110.

[3] Romita, Tessa, “overworked”, Business2.com, May 15, 2001, p. 60.




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