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Dave Birss

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Stress Awareness Day: why stress is the enemy of creativity


In the early 1990s, I used to write adverts for those new-fangled internet businesses. Most of them had the same promise: "Our technology will do all the hard work for you, so you've got more time to do what you enjoy!”

The clients wanted us to show images of people relaxing or playing golf or having extended business lunches. It was a beautiful dream! Utopia seemed possible for a short while. 

Then, very quickly, reality set in.

That dream never came true...

It was based on the naive misunderstanding that companies were satisfied with their employees’ output and weren’t interested in improving their utilisation rates. From this side of the Crackberry revolution, it seems like a ridiculous assumption to have made. Because it was.

Instead of nudging the work/life balance in the direction of more life, technology has slammed it fully in the direction of more work.  

As employees become ever-more contactable, the stress of the workplace now extends from the moment they wake up in the morning to the time they struggle to get to sleep at night. And during those waking hours, workplace stress has increased as employers attempt to squeeze those last few drops of utilisation out of their employees. 

Jobs are now the number one cause of stress, anxiety and depression

And that's terrible news for the very businesses who are responsible for this situation.

Stress doesn’t just lead to sick days and staff turnover, it affects the way people think and behave. Especially when it comes to generating and developing ideas. 

Stress puts people in a fight or flight state where they feel the need to choose the safest and most predictable option. It pulls them towards the proven and closes them off to the new. Which means that employees, departments and entire businesses are getting caught in ruts that become less relevant and effective over time.

And in an era when businesses need fresh ideas and innovative approaches, their focus on doing over thinking could be their undoing. The typical profit-maximisation strategies will end up losing companies money in the long-term. 

So let's look at some things you can do to reduce office-based stress and - as a by-product - allow people to think more clearly and come up with better ideas.

Free employees from their desks

People’s behaviour is influenced by the environment they’re in. And offices put people into a particular mindset. Just being in the corporate space causes us to adopt the politics, assumptions and behaviour that's expected of us. And raises stress levels accordingly.

So relax the office rules and encourage people to work out of the office when they need to. Especially if they need to think about things and generate new ideas. Desks are designed for doing, not thinking. The muses tend not to make many trips to office cubicles. A change of scenery can give different perspectives and offer more varied inspiration.

Even a simple walk around the block can be all that’s needed to unlock new thinking.

Encourage your employees to exercise

Getting your heart rate up increases blood flow to the brain, reduces levels of stress hormones and releases feel-good endorphins. In short, it puts a brain in a better state for broader thinking.

Plus regular exercise will increase energy levels and boost people’s ability to focus. Us humans weren’t designed to spend so much time in office chairs, no matter how ergonomic they are. 

Tell your employees to take more breaks

I know. This goes against everything your instinct tells you. It means less utilisation. But if you need ideas from your staff (and I think every business probably does) then you should encourage them to take occasional breaks to do something that makes them feel good.

That could be reading a book, meditating or having a little dance somewhere that no one can see them. Regular moments like these snap you out of the habitual mental ruts of office thinking. They help you escape from the incessant hum of stress. And there's another benefit.

By occupying the conscious mind with something different, it moves business problems to the more powerful unconscious brain. Solid, unbroken, applied mental effort doesn't give people the distance they often need to see a problem clearly. Don’t think of this as slacking-off - it's a vital part of effective thinking.

I can’t imagine that any employer would think so little of their staff as to deliberately inflict stress and anxiety on them. Yet, by passively accepting that ‘this is the way we work’ that’s exactly what they’re doing. 

You may want to blame the current situation on technology. But, of course, that would be nonsense. Businesses are run by humans and those humans can make decisions on how technology is used in their organisation. By not taking control of the situation, management is merely handing the problem on to their subordinates.

The employers who understand that giving a damn is good for business are the ones who are investing in their long-term success. By looking after the wellbeing of their staff they are, in turn, looking after the future well-being of their business. 

So, if you think ideas are important for the future of your business, I recommend you get started with these little suggestions here. If you don’t, just carry on as you are. And may God have mercy on your soul. 

One Response

  1. Some great tips here Bob.
    Some great tips here Bob. Additionally (and once again rather a rather counter-intuitive strategy in the modern work place?) I’d recommend people should sometimes ‘take it lying down’. Evidence suggests that our ability to solve creative problems may actually increase when we are flat on our back. Researchers at the Australian National University discovered that volunteers were faster at solving anagrams lying down as compared to when they were standing. Warning: long-term use of this unconventional strategy may prove to be counterproductive, especially if you are feeling sleepy!! Read ‘Upskill:21 Keys to Professional Growth’ for more details.

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Dave Birss

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