Too Stressed to Innovate? Take a Breath

By Isabelle St-Jean, RSW, ACC

Given the number of e-mails, texts, meetings and “to do’s” that fill a typical day, is it really surprising to find so much research pointing to the rise of stress in the workplace?

In a world that is constantly connected, there is the perception that we too are expected to be ‘on’ 24/7. Moreover, five years on from the cautionary tale of 2008 the mantra of ‘do more with less’ remains, adding further tension for organizations and individuals alike.

A recent study completed by the BC Mental Health Association confirms what has been suspected—mental health in the workplace is being eroded at an alarming rate.  This study suggests that chronic stress often results in periods of depression when the levels of stress become debilitating.

The multiplicity of demands alone can trigger states of chronic stress that carry  significant costs for any organization.  On the most obvious level, the cost involves a loss of productivity and drop in staff morale.

Less visible, but no less concerning, is the stasis such stress creates and the loss of innovative possibilities it implies. Innovation might be born of necessity in some instances, but it can not thrive where chronic stress has a hold. Without innovation though, we just don’t move forward, either as teams or in our own development.

With this in mind, how can we cultivate conditions that counter the risks of chronic stress, foster a healthier workplace and regenerate mindsets conducive to innovation? From the micro (individual) to the macro (workplace culture), a few insights, questions and solutions are discussed herein.

Putting the Science of Stress to Work
Turning to neuroscience, we can better understand how stress impacts our professional lives and the bottom line.  In Power Up Your Brain, authors D. Perlmutter and A. Villoldo clarify what renders us less creative or apt to innovate. They explain that chronic stress is associated with the production of the hormone cortisol and its impact, minus the scientific terminology, is simple—learning and creativity become almost impossible.

Thus afflicted, we tend to ““become paralyzed by an inability to discover novel solutions and are unable to think or feel originally anymore.”

What occurs as a result is that we revert to a survival mode wherein we tend to operate on auto-pilot and/or hover in the status quo.  We get stuck in the routine and ruts of old patterns. When this happens, our innovative contributions to the workplace are simply not available.  More troublingly, the wider workplace suffers from the atmosphere of stagnancy that chronic stress can bring to bear on any one individual.

Be Mindful of the Moment
Without doubt, organizations have faced bigger picture challenges of their own, particularly in recent years. When an organization becomes temporally out of balance and overly focused on striving to control outcomes, it generates an added tension that further exacerbates stress.

In this kind of workplace, people are implicitly encouraged to bypass the present in pursuit of the future. This focuses people away from their immediate point of power and action: the now.

Fortunately, in regaining our sense of the present, a great many stresses can be relieved. Our most inspired thoughts and efficient actions occur in the moment.  If we train our minds to be more attuned to the present, stress levels diminish and innovative potential is unlocked once more.

Jon Kabat-Zinn who founded the renowned Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical School defines mindfulness as the confluence of intention, attention and present time experience. Alongside an ever-growing body of research, the practice of mindfulness is currently being integrated, as an effective antidote to stress, in all areas of mainstream life and work.

Essentially, it is the art of becoming a non-judgmental observer of our thoughts, feelings, and behaviours. Over time, this practice can significantly counteract the racing habits of mind, rearrange the neural networks in the brain and help to regulate our emotions and energy expenditure.

A Few Deep Breaths
In the field of mindfulness, we are reminded that breathing is the key to opening our awareness.  The simple act of taking a few deep breaths periodically throughout the work day can change the chemistry in our brains.  Breathing is something we do so reflexively that we do it unconsciously, and often poorly.

Taking a moment to focus on the most basic of acts—a few good deep breaths—brings immediate benefits. It brings us access to the reflective faculties of the pre-frontal cortex, calms our nervous system and makes us more aware, observant and apt to think creatively.

In Mindsight, Dr. Daniel Siegel explains that through practicing skills of awareness, intentions and attention, we can better integrate life’s experiences from a more useful perspective. This allows us to develop what Siegel dubs FACES in acronym, those resourceful states of mind that serve ourselves and organizations best: flexible, adaptive, coherent, energized, and stable. Siegel asserts that these resourceful states help to counteract stress where it originates—in our brains and in our minds.

As a life and business coach for the past ten years, I have repeatedly witnessed clients clearly impacted as much by the story they tell themselves as the impact of any one particular event. A lack of awareness typically combines with a narrow perspective from which the interpretation or meaning is made about an event, which generates a stress response in turn.

While such recognitions are often gained in hindsight, it is in the moment that the greatest gains stand to be made. By learning to anchor ourselves in mindful states, we strengthen our resilience, expand our interpretive perspectives and better tap the higher functions of our brain – those that foster creative solutions and innovation.

Professional speaker, author, life and business coach, Isabelle St-Jean, RSW, ACC, brings over 20 years of communication, leadership and personal effectiveness experience to her audiences, readers and clients.

(PeopleTalk Spring 2013)

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