Stress is not the Problem

Occasionally you’ll hear something that instantly strikes a chord. A friend and colleague of mine once spoke just twelve words that opened my eyes to something of great importance. Mark McKeon and I were presenting a leadership workshop to a group of senior financial planners, when Mark said to the group: ‘Stress is not the problem; the problem is a lack of recovery.’

As an expert in sports science, a member of the Collingwood Football Club Hall of Fame and co-founder of Ultra-FIT magazine, Mark’s words related to physical activity, however, I instantly saw that his meaning had clear application beyond exercise – an application that dovetailed with decades of my own research and experience.

Having worked in a number of high-risk environments (including alongside Nelson Mandela’s bodyguard team in South Africa, and taking part in drug raids with the FBI in Los Angeles), I have a very pragmatic perspective when it comes to stress and resilience.

That said, one of the interesting things I’ve observed from working with leaders from a range of industries is that a common reason good leaders experience work-related frustration is a lack of challenge. Basically, they get bored. And if there was ever a sure sign of the absence of stress, it is boredom.

In life, most biochemical processes strive to maintain equilibrium. Aiming to ‘remove’ stress is not only highly impractical, but in fact detrimental. Without the ‘stress’ of gravity, astronauts who spend extended periods of time in space lose up to 25% of their bone mass density (which can have long-term health consequences once they return to earth). And when high-profile athletes retire from the ‘stress’ of professional sport, it is not uncommon for their names to reappear in the news, with reports of their battles with substance abuse, depression or relationship failures. Of course, these examples of human frailty are in no way limited to celebrities, but it bears attention that many of these fallen role models are financially better off than most people, which suggests that an absence of financial stress does not ensure wellbeing.

And would you really want a stress-free life? While the idea of financial independence is attractive, the sheer boredom of a complete absence of stress would eventually wear you down. So, rather than focusing on – and trying to remove – stress, a different way to move forward is to challenge yourself in a way that encourages personal and professional growth, while also deliberately factoring in ways to recover.

The Harvard Study of Adult Development, the longest, most comprehensive examination of ageing ever conducted, has demonstrated the clear value of ongoing personal development as a powerful factor in effectively dealing with stress. The same research has also consistently demonstrated that regular exercise and maintaining a strong social networks are prime indicators of the overall satisfaction a person gets from life. More than that, they are a form of recovery. As you exercise in place of smoking, for example, you are recovering from stress. The same applies to maintaining strong social relationships and pursuing education.

Those readers who have taken part in my workshop, Words to Action, will recall the concept of Circle of Concern / Circle of Control: I may be concerned about global warming, but what’s more important is that I control things such as whether or not I invest in a solar hot water system for my home. Similarly, I may be concerned about dying from emphysema but what matters is that I control whether or not I smoke.

As Mark McKeon said, stress is not the problem; the problem is a lack of recovery. How you go about your recovery is up to you, but if longevity and peace of mind matter, then learning to let go of the things you can’t control is as important as focusing on the things you can control. Saying no to one too many demands and instead doing something nurturing for yourself – such as go for a walk or catch up with a friend for coffee – may seem self indulgent, but if viewed from a long-term perspective this approach will enable you to pass the test of time and in the process you’ll be able to give more to your profession and the people you care about.

Rob will be a guest speaker at the PCO Conference at the Brisbane Convention and Exhibition Centre. His presentation, Leading the Way, will provide compelling insights into what it means to be a resilient leader and how anyone – regardless of rank or title – can positively influence the attitudes and behaviours of clients, colleagues and complete strangers.

Rob Redenbach is the best-selling author of What I Didn’t Learn at Harvard. On 28 November 2016