Burnt-out on stress management? It's time to change the organization.

Some years ago, I received a call from an organization that wanted me to conduct a stress-management workshop. I had done this many times, but I found myself hesitating. "Perhaps I could speak to your group about something else," I said.

And then, before I had a chance to think or to stop myself, I heard the words coming from my mouth: "You know, I'm really getting burnt-out on stress management."

I was stunned. How could I say such a thing? As a psychologist, I am in the stress management business. I don't hear my banker complaining about too many deposits. How could I complain about too many people striving for health and self improvement?

After taking time to reflect and consider my remark, I realized what I must have been thinking: stress management is a dead topic, or it least it should be. This was perhaps an unusual thought, but it was also one worth pursuing.

By way of explanation, I should begin with what I usually say about stress. I usually begin by saying that stress is something that everyone recognizes but which few understand or can describe or explain.

We know that stress can cause harm and that it generates costs. In order to account for the harm and the costs, there are four factors that need to be considered as part of the health stress equation:

1. Stress involves a physical response, a physiological state of arousal that prepares the body to take action.

2. The arousal occurs in response to events. They might be big, life change events or just daily hassles.

3. The stress reaction depends on how the events are perceived. Depending on the perception, an event might be considered a challenge or an opportunity, or a disruptive source of distress.

4. Finally, the extent to which stressful events will harm an individual depends on the coping resources that a person brings to bear on the problem.

Given this analysis of the stress and well-being equation, there are in turn four avenues for dealing with the problem.

1. Manage the physical response and change the way you body reacts.
2. Change the events in your life.
3. Change your perceptions or change the way you look at things.
4. Manage stress by enhancing your coping skills.

The list of techniques for managing stress is endless, and for the most part, they serve to illustrate why I have come to believe that stress management is not the correct topic for discussion in the workplace or in an organization.

To manage the physical response: exercise regularly, breathe correctly, get enough sleep, practice relaxation, etc.

To change the events: quit your job or stop working so hard; don't push yourself to be so efficient or to produce and accomplish so much; stop trying to take care of every little complaint your customers bring to you; stop sweating the details and stop listening to all of those orders from the boss.

To change your perceptions: understand that your job and your performance are not that important in the larger scheme of life; realize that deadlines are just artificial barriers to creativity; stop believing that every customer has to be satisfied; understand that there is no essential reason why your company or division has to be the best. In other words, develop a more relaxed attitude about your responsibilities.

To manage stress by increasing your coping abilities: take another week off at a time management seminar; become more assertive so that you don't feel so anxious and upset when you tell your boss what you really think; learn how to get others to do more of the tasks you don't enjoy; and remember to put your feet up on your desk every afternoon and meditate for a half hour or so.

The problem with the stress management agenda is that it starts with the assumption that the individual must adapt to an unhealthy situation. Whenever we talk about managing the stress, we are failing to talk about altering the noxious events that give rise to the stress in the first place. And as can be seen above, the goals of effective stress management are in many ways in conflict with the objectives of good organizational management.

We know that hard work, attention to detail and organizational discipline are required for profitability. We therefore assume that work must necessarily involve stress factors which the individual is responsible for "managing."

Instead, we should realize that demanding conditions are not stressful when they are experienced as challenges. Pressure is something on which most people thrive when they experience the demands of work as personally relevant and meaningful.

In most cases, it is not the necessary and unavoidable stressful events in the work place that cause people harm. Instead, it is the stressors that need not be: those things that could just as easily be changed. The functioning of individuals is impaired by events which if not viewed as "stressors" would otherwise be recognized for what they are: impediments to organizational performance.

Even those who are overwhelmed by the tasks that they face and who believe that they have no control over events will not be harmed by stress if they believe that their efforts are valued and that their work has purpose and is worthwhile. People will adapt and will have no need to "manage" their responses if they feel there is good reason to tolerate the pressures. People can thrive, even in the face of stress, if they experience themselves as having a Sense of Coherence.

Rather than trying to "manage" the problem, or to "therapize" the individuals who suffer from the effects of stress, the intelligent strategy is to focus on changing and curing the work environment itself. As with any other safety problem, the keyword is prevention. This is precisely what the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has said: "Stress management treats only the symptoms of the problem--not the cause."

From the employer's perspective, it is simply good business. If your workers are distressed, you might as well just forget about trying to be competitive.

On the day that I precipitously announced that I was burnt-out on stress management, I was not prepared to offer the suggestion that would have been appropriate to the request. The next time I received such a call, I was ready.

"I would be happy to talk about stress management," I said. "But first, let's talk about what you are doing to enhance worker satisfaction. What are you doing to sustain morale and to improve employee motivation? Let's look at the prevention side first, and then, if you still have a problem, I would be pleased to teach your people how to relax."

Copyright, Paul G. Mattiuzzi, Ph.D.