The Evolution of Workplace Stress…and how to Overcome It

February 5, 20186min

Let’s take a trip back 10,000 years. You’re a hunter gatherer living on the plains, trying to provide for your young family, and while tracking a deer, you hear a sound behind you.

It’s a wolf! And it’s accompanied by its entire pack. Suddenly you switch from hunter to hunted.

You don’t have time to think. You run. You run for your cave and the safety of your group. Your heart is pounding,  the adrenaline is coursing through your veins as you make it to safety.

Wow! That was stressful. But within a few minutes you’ve recovered and it’s just another story for the campfire. You probably find it hard to relate to running from wild beasts; it’s not part of your everyday life. Yet this kind of situation was typical for about 98 percent of human history. It’s what shaped our bodies and brains.

You may be surprised to know that 10,000 years is only 500 generations. In evolutionary terms that’s nothing. The biggest changes to the way we live and work have happened in the last five generations, and the increased use of technology in the last generation has increased our workloads rather than alleviated it, as promised. The workplace is now the number one cause of stress, anxiety, and depression.

The modern workplace is the equivalent of the prairie of 10,000 years ago. Except the stress is more constant and the threats are more complex. Most people spend a significant amount of time in a fight-or-flight state.

As someone who works with companies to come up with better ideas, that’s really bad news.

Stress affects the way we think. If you’re running from a pack of wolves, you don’t start exploring options and assessing what’s a reasonable level of risk. You immediately choose a safe option and run towards it with all your energy.

The exact same happens in the workplace. When people are stressed, they limit their thinking to the proven and predictable. That’s why best practices, case studies, and white papers are so popular.

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

Escape your desk

Our behaviour is influenced by the environment we’re in. Our offices put us 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 our stress levels accordingly.

So make a point of getting out of the office if you need to think about things. Your desk is designed for doing, not thinking. It doesn’t tend to be where the best ideas happen. A change of scenery gives you different perspectives and helps you think about things differently. A simple walk around the block can be all you need to unlock new thinking.

Take some exercise

Maybe even try running around the block a few times. 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 your brain in a better state for broader thinking. Plus regular exercise will increase your energy levels and boost your ability to focus. Again, think back to the life of a human 10,000 years ago. No-one had invented the office cubicle yet, so humans spent more time on their feet, moving around and getting their blood pumping.

You weren’t designed to spend so much time in an office chair, no matter how ergonomic it is.

Do something you enjoy

Take a break and do something that makes you feel good. That could be reading a book, drawing a picture, or even having a little dance somewhere no-one can see you. 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. By occupying your conscious mind with something different, you move your business problems to the more powerful unconscious brain. Solid, unbroken, applied mental effort doesn’t give you the distance you often need to see a problem clearly. This isn’t slacking-off, it’s a vital part of effective thinking.

The constant drive to efficiency and utilisation is resulting in poisonous workplaces. Most people are absorbing these mental toxins; simply accepting that they’re part of life. They don’t need to be. A few simple steps like these can offer an antidote.

One thing’s for sure: ignoring workplace stress is a bad idea. Especially if, like me, you’re after good ideas.


Dave Birss

Dave Birss

Dave Birss, creativity and applied thinking expert and speaker in the Thought Expansion Network – a community of world-class thinkers, business brains and social activists.




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