90: The Discipline of Pause to Combat Stress in the Workplace

Stress can have a significant impact on organizational performance. How can company leaders and HR best deal with it? Charles Fred explains how stress impacts organizational performance, where stress originates, and what leaders can do to reign it in. Learn how to ‘pause’ to avoid amplifying stress and what HR leaders can do to address stress within their organizations.
Charles Fred is a best-selling author, entrepreneur, and 2019 Chair of the Association for Talent Development. He has devoted nearly four decades of his life to discovering new ways for professionals to acquire the skills necessary to compete in industries undergoing major transformations.  Charles is a pioneer in the e-Learning industry, and his best-selling book, Breakaway, is credited with introducing the new framework for organizational learning. His latest book, The 24-Hour Rule:  Leading in a Frenetic World, presents research following the impact of stress on organizational development and how quickly stress can spread when enabled with technology. It also introduces the ‘discipline of pause’ as a required leadership competency.
Listen (above) or watch the video (below) to catch Denise's interview with Charles.

Key Learnings From This Episode

  • Research findings - the impact of stress on organizational performance. In partnership with a national research firm, the team assessed ethnography which is the study of people and cultures - a form of anthropology. By studying 4000 mid-size companies over the last six years, the researchers were able to establish a connection between poor performing companies and high levels of stress within the organization. The data collection included exit interviews for unplanned turnover and a distinct pattern was seen between poor performance and stress. The reason people were leaving was because of stress. It’s been heard that people leave their ‘manager’. The data shows that people leave because they cannot think straight and it extends into their personal life.
  • Are managers the cause of stress? The story of Typhoid Mary demonstrates the infectious nature of stress. Typhoid Mary (Mary Mallon) was an Irish immigrant who moved to the US during the turn of the 19th century. She was a cook and has been infamously credited with spreading typhoid fever because people became infected with the disease after eating food she had prepared. This is known as contracting an infectious disease. There is a process in stress called ‘the contagion effect’ that has a very similar influence. Stress is infectious. In the example of Mary, you had to be near her to contract the disease. With technology today, you can now spread stress across the entire globe. 
  • Charles Fred on HR Studio PodcastWho creates stress? Typically, this is the person who has the most influence over an organization – the leader. Leaders have high expectations. There are deadlines to be met, there is procrastination with very little direction provided, and leaders are disappointed when the end product or results do not meet their expectations. 
  • How can leaders be encouraged to act differently? The research did not show a pattern of malice. Leaders do not purposely or maliciously spread stress through the organization. Leaders sometimes do not see the stress spreading behind them. They do not always have a feedback mechanism advising them of what is happening. A leader may send out an email in the evening and restfully sleep the night away, not realizing that they have now set in motion and amplified stress throughout the organization. Employees become stressed, they are losing sleep, they wake up stressed, and even their families are affected. The leader has no idea of what they have created. Leaders need to be aware of their influence and what it means within their organization.
  • Leaders are sometimes afforded the benefit of a Coach to help guide them. For those who do not have that guidance, how can leaders become more self-aware about their impact and the stress they are causing? If a leader is unaware, they are not paying attention. Turnover is harmful to an organization because it is difficult to find top talent. Leaders need to look at their own behaviors before they look at the other possible causes of turnover (e.g., compensation, benefits, rewards).  The exit interviews showed that compensation and benefits were at the bottom of the list as reasons for people leaving. More had to do with people feeling they could no longer perform their best in the environment. Millennials, for example, will not tolerate a stressful environment for long periods of time.
  • It is important for leaders to let people know they are aware they are stressing them out. Leaders should put some things in place, let people know what they are planning to do, and then ask for feedback as to whether or not those things are working. After getting feedback, leaders should decide what to continue and what to change. When leaders let people know they are aware they are stressing their organization, it almost instantly destresses an organization.
  • Stress has been accelerated by technology. People have become accustomed to texting and tweeting. Data indicates that technology is not the real problem. It is easy to blame the phone sitting on the table. However, it is the individual picking up the phone and texting and emailing. ‘Pauses in discipline’ suggests that individuals stop blaming leaders. As individuals, people need to put down their phones and devices for a few minutes. They need to get mental clarity before responding to others. People are in complete control of one thing in their life – the way in which they respond and react to others.
  • How can we reign in people who are feeling high, intense emotions? Charles has kept a daily journal for 35 years. When looking at patterns over the years, he is able to see all the times he has tried to control things he could not control – the environment, the world, the economy, friends. The one pattern he found for what he could control was how he responded and reacted to others. Find a way to pause before you cause damage when it comes to stress. Know that if you don’t, you are causing stress – and people are losing sleep.
  • What are some strategies people can use to ‘pause’? People should try to remember the last time they had mental clarity. They should try to remember a day when someone did or said something that pushed their buttons, but somehow, they decided to stop and get some mental clarity. Conversely, the next time they pick up their phone and want to send off a text, they should stop and be aware of it. Everyone is susceptible to the behavior. People have to come up with a tempo or a process to help them get that mental awareness or clarity. People have to figure out what works for them.
  • What can someone do if their leader is causing stress, but they don’t want to leave? Is there anything they can do to influence their leader to change – or accept that change will not happen and cope with the environment? For someone’s own mental health, it may be necessary to leave.  However, if a person decides to stay, they have to figure out their own way to ‘pause’ before responding so they do not amplify the stress. Next, they need to figure out how to work with a person who demonstrates impetuous, stressful behavior without spreading it. Finally, a person should develop a clear message and let a leader know how they are affected by the leader’s behavior. This last step takes courage and may not be realistic in all cases. However, many leaders would want to know how they are affecting their employees.
  • People want to move fast in the corporate world, causing turmoil in their organizations to get things done. As an Elite Masters Track Athlete, Charles shares some parallels with the corporate environment. The way for Charles to run faster in the races he enters is to prepare. If he wants to go faster, he has to have the discipline to prepare to do so. If all he did was run without any other preparation, he would just go slow and get injured. People see billionaires and celebrities that never stop. Their lives are full and amazing, and they are traveling the world. The reality is that none of it is true. The longer people try to replicate it, the more stress they drive into their own lives because people feel unfilled. If people could pause, develop and have a routine that helps them get mental clarity, it will change things for the better. It is about people being their best selves.
  • A Harvard Business Study was performed on the top-performing CEOs. It showed they sleep just as much as everyone else, they watch the same amount of television like everyone else, and they have the same needs and wants as everyone else. The personas, it turns out, are all public relations.
  • Advice for Human Resources leaders. People leading HR now have roles in data assessment and technology, reaching multiple people. What mechanisms are available to help people distress? HR can get the issue into the Board Room – to look at performance relative to stress, to look at performance relative to the use of technology, and to look at people’s lives that exist beyond the office. Stress is not an office issue. It may start there, but it permeates in ways that affect families, how they see the world, the way they think, and their fears. If HR is going to develop human capital and talent and drive organizations to higher performance, they have to start paying attention to the issue of stress in the workplace.
Charles Fred HR Studio Podcast Show Notes
Charles Fred HR Studio Podcast Show Notes
Monday, October 14, 2019 - 1:38pm
Denise Yosafat
Charles Fred
HR Studio Podcast