Stressing Safely

Stress can erode physical functioning and adversely affect our body, but it also has direct effects on safety.

Stress seems common and, if anything, is intensifying. This brings me back to a seemingly previous lifetime coordinating the Stress Management Center of a Portland, Ore. hospital. Even before that experience, I studied the effects of stress on work, human and organizational performance in grad school, presented at an International Stress & Tension Control Society conference and more.
While we all likely know that stress can erode physical functioning and adversely affect our body, it also has direct effects on safety that leaders should understand, especially now.

Start with the bottom line of what stress is and is not: according to “the father of stress management,” Hans Selye, MD, stress is an internal reaction to outside stressors, changing forces or pressures on us. This is an important distinction; changes and other demands may continually push or pull us, but it is our reactions to those that determine how much we are “stressed.” I cannot stop the wind from blowing but do have the power to shield from it or reposition myself so it is not pummeling my face.

So, stress is an internal state, one I define as “the feeling of being out of control.” You know—being dog-tired at the end of the day yet still not being able to sleep because your mind was churning in worry mode? Not getting yourself to exercise or do what is “good for you” despite telling yourself you should? Binge eating when you know you should not? Impulse buying with funds you had actually wanted to save for something more important?

Furthermore, here are some ways that stress can adversely affect safety. It initially results in the mental state of tunnel vision—both physical, where peripheral vision narrows (ever look for something like your car keys that you were actually holding in one hand?) and mental, where we over-focus on one thing and find it hard to note/consider a range of options. This aspect of tunnel vision makes it more challenging to be able to work efficiently while simultaneously monitoring and then minimizing potential risks. For example, you can be so intent on carrying a part to a machine on the other side of the floor that you do not note trip or slip hazards on the ground between here and there.

Other examples: Dwelling on anger, fears or outside thoughts so you are less able to see and adjust to a car weaving in the next lane. Not self-monitoring your current physical state before lifting an object. Glossing over the need to avoid reaching into a pinch point. Not hearing the machine you are working on signaling a slightly unusual sound.

Additionally, stress can also elevate overall physical tension, potentially putting the workers closer to the edge of a cumulative trauma injury. Or, because excess physical tension/stiffening directly diminishes physical balance, stress can place a worker at higher risk that an initial loss of balance will break down into an otherwise avoidable fall.

Leaders: please understand that high-level safety and strong stress management are both internalized states of self-control. Work to accomplish tasks as safely as possible combined with the skills to best control worker attention, make highest decisions and take the most effective actions.

Help people go beyond those supermarket articles that throw out over-simplistic, credibility-reducing mottos to “just balance your work and your life.” The good news is there are simple, realistic methods we can all use that take little time and get significant results. They will not fix everything but can help you live your life safer, stronger and more in control.

Start by better understanding the link between our mental thoughts, physical body and emotional feelings. For example, if you think of an embarrassing moment that happened years ago, your body will react just as if you were there now. Studies show that people experiencing chronic back pain often feel emotionally out of sorts.

However, the flip side of control also applies. Controlling your mindset, body position, balance and small muscle coordination can have quick, positive effects on your mind and emotions. And this is usually faster and more efficient; while it’s often difficult for most people to direct their thoughts and emotions, it is usually easier to make small adjustments in the physical body.

Simply improving breath control is one powerful way to better managing stress.

A Northwestern University study, “Rhythm of Breathing Affects Memory and Fear,” reported “the rhythm of your breathing can influence neural activity that enhances memory recall and emotional judgement” by creating electrical activity in the brain. It also notes that these effects are strongly dependent on whether a person breathes through the mouth or nose when inhaling and exhaling. That mouth breathing dramatically reduces our abilities to recognize potential threats and to later better recall these. In other words, simply remembering to nasally breathe can enhance awareness, recognition, recall and learning.

How does breathing relate to worker safety? According to lead study researcher and professor of neurology, Christina Zelano, a worker focused on breathing in through the nose “could have a positive impact on brain function and result in faster response times to dangerous stimuli in the environment.”

There are a multitude of methods for harnessing “stress power” that you can readily google. However, the real message is that, ultimately, leaders can help others improve their overall level of effectiveness by transferring a wide array of simple-to-learn techniques for dialing up the positive attributes of stress (excitement, openness to change, energy, alertness, the challenge of learning something new, performing under pressure, etc.) while ratcheting down the negative pulls on health and safety. Remember, best leaders always “lead the way” by first exploring and practicing new methods themselves.

This article originally appeared in the September 2020 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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