“If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen!” This had always been Michel’s response when his senior executives started “wilting under pressure” and letting him down. As the CEO of a global oil company, Michel had faced many stressful events, and considered himself to be a tough guy with no tolerance for wimps.
In the past year, two members of his team had disappeared into a “black hole” of long-term sick leave (as he thought of it). Why hadn’t he seen this coming? What was going on?
The tipping point of distress
A recent study suggested that work-related stress in the UK in 2015-2016 accounted for 37% of all ill-health cases and 45% of all working days lost due to ill health across all industries and professions. This study identified workload pressure and lack of managerial support as the main work factors mentioned by employees causing work-related stress. This raises a long recognized conundrum: pressure to perform is only effective to a certain, unpredictable degree. Positive stress, also known as “eustress,” helps keep people energized and alert.
Evaluating signs of stress
Inspired by aviation and medical best practices for handling crises, we set out to develop a simple yet robust protocol that could help executives like Michel and his HR director anticipate cases of potential burnout. A classic, and widely used example of such a protocol is the APGAR scoring system.
Building on the effectiveness of this type of quick assessment, we developed the Stress- APGAR barometer. Rather than being a test, survey, or assessment tool, the Stress-APGAR provides a set of guidelines that help executives think about and articulate factors that may lead to burnout.
Our Stress-APGAR acronym recalls five key areas of potential pressure overload. These are:
A for appearance: How does the person look? Does he/she seem overly tired? Has he/she been gaining or losing weight? Is there any indication of substance abuse?
P for performance: A decrease in performance, particularly over time, may be linked to increasing distress. On the other hand, a forced effort to over-perform — becoming a workaholic — is also a warning sign.
G for growth tension: Growth is a result of learning and stretch goals. Everyone is different; some people take to new challenges easily, whereas others may find them more difficult.
A for affect control: “Affect” is another word for “emotion.” Everyone has good and bad days, but most people can regulate their emotions in a way that is appropriate for the workplace. However, noticeable and lasting changes in emotional state can be related to an overload of physical and psychological pressure.
R for relationships: Personal relationships are an essential part of mental health. In situations of increased stress, it is possible to observe deterioration in the quality of relationships at work, including social isolation.
Stress-APGAR in practice
Stress-APGAR dimensions, when taken together, can be used as a barometer that indicates changes in a pressure system. Each organization and individual is different, so we deliberately have not devised good or bad scores.
The Stress-APGAR can be used over time to see whether there is an increase or decrease in the danger signs. A simple self-rating of 1-10 can be used, with the individual stating where they are today, and where they feel they could use some help to improve their score.
Our hope is that the Stress-APGAR could become a starting point for courageous conversations on how to create better places to work. And as Hans Selye, the father of modern stress research once said, “It is not stress that kills us, it is our reaction to it.”
To read the full article, published on the Harvard Business Review, click the following link: An Early Warining System for Your Team's Stress Level by Thomas Hellwig, Caroline Rook, Elisabeth Florent-Treacy & Manfred Kets de Vries