The Stress Performance Curve
Stress is part of life and to some extent stress, or at least benign stress (let’s call it pressure), helps to motivate us to perform well. To that extent it can be considered positive.
With too little pressure performance is sub-optimum. Witness the difficulties and boredom generated by too little work as well as insubstantial work that you can’t “get your teeth into”. The problem is that as the pressure increases performance peaks and then declines as the pressure turns to high level stress.
This stress performance curve almost adds to the idea of being over-the-hill, although in this case it’s not about being “up to it”, it’s about being on that incline that leads to the cliff. It’s about the increasing inability to perform along with declining health brought on by stress.
I almost wrote “declining health brought on by excessive stress” but stopped myself because that seemed somewhat absolute. It does not recognise an important reality. The servant leader needs to keep in view that each individual is just that, individual, different to any one else. The stress that you can stand may wipe me out, or vica versa.
The idea of this stress/performance curve gives rise to the questions “How do I know when things have gone too far? What are the symptoms?” As a Christian servant leader this is an important thing to understand. I asked Colin Buckland about this, here are the insights that he shared.
How Does Stress Work On People?
Overwhelmed by Adrenaline
“Stress effectively is invoking what we call the fight and flight dynamic. This enables us to be energized to withstand and avoid threat, so it’s a good thing. The problem is that if we live in that state constantly, our health seriously breaks down. The reason why people die is that stress has broken down their health to the extent that death ensues.
What happens to us when we enter into a state of stress, regardless of the source, is that we invoke this flight and fight dynamic. This literally pumps chemicals, adrenaline, into our system. What’s interesting is that, thanks to the adrenaline, people can achieve tremendous physical performances when fight or flight kicks in. We are given almost super human strength by these dynamics, but our system is not designed to stay at that level of heightened capability. It’s a bit like an aircraft or a kite, what goes up must come down. It can’t stay up.
If our stresses are heightened and the chemicals are flushing our system, we can’t stay there, or at least we can stay there, but we shouldn’t. What can happen is that we can develop what is sometimes graphically called “Hurry Sickness”, which is really an addiction to our own adrenaline, or high adrenaline states. The more that you find yourself having to live in a high adrenaline state, the more you will burn from the effects of stress, because your system wasn’t made for that. It’s just not physically good for you.
When stressed, for some of us at least, our bodies retain cholesterol, we won’t get into that too much in detail now. This cholesterol harms us and ultimately can lead to heart conditions, high blood pressure and stroke. Actually staying in a stressful state, in that heightened state, means that you can retain cholesterol that is ultimately having a negative effect on your body.
Staying in a heightened flight or fight state really places a heavy load on your muscles and your bones.
We often find that people have what we call concrete shoulders, their shoulders are constantly like rock. They are like that because they are held in tension, ready for the fight or the flight, and they find themselves in that condition regularly. That starts to give you strain in the body.
Typically most of our bodies have a weak spot somewhere, so you will find for example that they will struggle with back pain. A lot of the back conditions are as a result of being over stressed, staying in that condition, putting an undue load on the body, and the body reacting and breaking down.
Stress will find your weak spot. People often find that they have terrible headaches and it isn’t because they drank a glass of bad wine the night before, it’s because they are staying in this stressful state and their muscles are stiff and it starts to impact their body.
Increasing levels of illness
Now, over time what can then happen is that your ability to withstand illness declines so that you are actually getting more colds and flu, and even cuts and sores won’t heal. Your body is complaining that it is living in an unnatural place. That ultimately can lead to your death in extreme cases, and sadly there are a lot of those cases to report.
Finding it difficult to sleep, or finding it difficult to get up from sleeping is another issue.
People in extreme stress are often accused of being lazy and the reason for that is they say they won’t get out of bed. The psychology behind that is that the moment my toe hits the bedroom carpet the day begins. The longer I can put off the day beginning, maybe the safer I can keep myself.
The truth is that they are in a heightened, stressful state. So not only do they face aches and pains and the loss of the ability to fight off illness, but they struggle with sleep along with getting irritable with people, showing less patience.
Frequently over-stressed people feel like they are achieving a lot when they are really not. This is a symptom of Hurry Sickness which often presents itself as racing around in ever decreasing circles but not really doing very much, and always feeling like someone is going to want something from you.
As a servant leader, the condition of your team members will be of great importance to you. Take a few minutes to reflect on your team. Do you recognize the symptoms identified above or those we mentioned in the first article in this series?
- Decreasing performance
- Increasing levels of sickness
- Increasing absenteeism
- Increase in staff churn
If you do, it may not affect everyone, because we each respond to stress differently. Try to identify what is causing the stress.
What can you do to help team members who may be exhibiting signs of stress? The remaining two parts of this series will give you some ideas.
Image: JB London Flickr.com