I’ve noticed that just about everyone I speak with during the week starts out their conversations with some variation of this: “Wow, I’ve been busy. It’s just been crazy busy! I’ve been working hard to try to stay ahead of the wave, but it keeps crashing over the top of me….” Sound familiar? The reality is that our global “I need it NOW” 7X24 economy has transformed our lives in many ways, most of them good, but some of them are decidedly not so good. We are all feeling pressure to work long hours, and to stay connected early in the morning until late in the evening, and on weekends and holidays to keep our productivity where we expect it needs to be. We are taking our mobile devices everywhere, and I frequently see people texting as they drive, sending and receiving emails on their smartphones and tablets at their kids hockey games, etc. I’ve been asking my clients for the last three years about how much this overwhelming sense of responsibility affects them. Not surprisingly, they say that they are stressed.
How Big Is The Stress Tax? In weekly coaching sessions, my clients frequently tell me that they are stressed. Sometimes the stresses are milder, and sometimes they say that they are stressed beyond their ability to cope. In general, if I talk to 10 clients a week, on average 5 or 6 of them are pretty stressed by the circumstances of their lives and their jobs. I guess that’s one of the reasons why they’re working with a business coach, right? When the clients are REALLY stressed, I ask them how they feel (generally terrible..) and I ask them how big the productivity tax is when they feel supremely stressed. Their answers shocked me at first, but over the last several years the evidence I’ve seen suggests, and my clients would confirm, that the average tax on a human being’s productivity might be somewhere between 20 and 60%. Let’s cut it down the middle and suggest that perhaps it averages 40%. That means if you are a Customer Service professional and on a good day you can handle ten customer calls successfully, then on a day when you are supremely stressed, you can only handle about six. Your productivity is taking a 40% hit, due to the psychological and physiological impacts of your stress. Let’s not quibble over this, the percentage is not the end-all, here, the reality is that the stress tax is SIGNIFICANT, whether it’s 40% or 25%. Either way, it’s bad, right?
Why Is The Impact So High? When you are overwhelmed and feeling stressed your shoulders are tight, your hands are sweating or even shaking. Your voice begins to thin out and crack. Your breathing shallows and your body begins to produce adrenaline, cortisol, and a host of other things that are fantastic for you in the short run, but are like plutonium 238 for you over the long haul. They are toxic! Stressed people are less able to innovate, concentrate, calculate, problem solve, communicate, make decisions, perform actions, etc. No wonder the tax is so high! When the pressure is on, we get as focused as we can and begin to revert to our deepest held strengths and try to work our way out of the feeling of being overwhelmed and stressed. I’ve noticed that when overwhelmed and stressed, my clients tend to be far more pessimistic and far less open and optimistic than normal. I also notice that my clients’ self-awareness takes a significant hit when they are overwhelmed. I suspect that those changes relate to defense mechanisms that probably stem from some deep place in our psychological or physiological makeup. In any case, when we’re stressed all these terrible changes are happening and conspiring to position us at our worst to excel and perform.
What Remedies Might Be Available To Us? Muster up whatever self-awareness and social awareness you can, and double down with a healthy dose of candor as you evaluate yourself. If you are aware that you’re stressed and understand the many changes it makes to you psychologically and physically, you can make some really shrewd adjustments that will make a difference for you. You can call for some behavior changes and choices that will position you better to perform. Be aware of your typical reactions to stress and overwork, and develop some great strategies to cope so that you can avoid having to pay the stress tax in full. We need a deduction or a tax credit here, don’t we? Of course! First, monitor your breathing and ensure that you are taking slower, deeper breaths, to keep the oxygen coming. Get a drink of water, instead of Mountain Dew or coffee. Take a five-minute walk around the office. Do some power poses and stretches to get the blood flowing again. Visit with a colleague and change the mood with a joke or a funny story. Read something positive. Listen to a good TED talk. Go to our YouTube channel and listen to a positive talk about management or leadership. Whatever! The point is not to just blindly grind forward through another 12 hours of misery. Make a change for the better, even if it’s just a small change. And when you’re exhausted, knock off for the day or the week, and go recharge your battery, or resharpen your saw! Take control, and change it up, and restart when your focus, clarity, and energy are back to normal if you can.
We’ve all been there. I’ve seen dozens of amazing professionals meltdown and burst into tears or lose their cool and just abuse someone in a flash of anger when the pressure reached the boiling point. In every case, they regret it later. Don’t be that guy or gal. Really, this stress tax is obnoxious and it is WAY too huge. We cannot change the way the world is overnight, but we can make better choices day by day and avoid the possibility that we will be the next person who ends up going viral on the evening news as we lose our grip. Refuse to pay that darned old 40% tax and choose to regain your sense of humor and your balance. Let’s all decide to eliminate the Stress Tax!