By Gary Lepine, Concord Professional Development.
In some ways we humans are a lot like other animals, but in at least one significant way we are not. Apparently, zebras do not get ulcers while we do. In 1994, Robert Sapolsky wrote a book called Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers. The book was updated in 2004 and is now in its third edition. In that book, Sapolsky deals with the issues of stress, stress-related diseases and coping. The basic premise is this: zebras face two kinds of very stressful situations – acute physical crisis and chronic physical challenges. An example of the first situation would be when the zebra is peacefully minding its own business grazing on lunch when a lion jumps out at it also looking for lunch. At that moment the zebra, and the lion to some extent, are under stress and have choices to make. The zebra must decide to stand and confront the attacker or run like crazy, options that have classically been described as the ‘fight or flight’ response to stress. (The lion has already made the decision to fight, but if the zebra gets away it must also decide whether it has the ability, stamina, etc., to chase it and for how long, which can be stressful for the lion.) An example of the second situation might be if a drought occurs and the zebra has to wander for miles and miles every day looking for suitable and adequate food. The same situation can apply to the lion if there is a shortage of edible prey and it also has to spend excessive amounts of time and energy looking for dinner, or finds itself in a prolonged chase across the savannah. In both scenarios there is stress and both the zebra and the lion (and animals in general) are physically able to cope with and handle this kind of stress. In this way, we are like the zebra and the lion. We can also find ourselves in acute physical crisis or facing a chronic physical challenge and in both cases, while we may experience significant stress, as a general rule our bodies were designed to be able to handle it. Where we differ from zebras and lions is in the area of our mental make-up, or what Sapolsky calls “psychological and
social disruptions.” As near as we know, the animal kingdom does not spend a great deal of time worrying about what might happen to them, only what is happening. Humans on the other hand are very good at worrying about what might happen. In fact, many of us excel at it. It is somewhat dependent upon personality of course, but most of us are quite good at imagining what stress might be inflicted upon us in the future. And what has been discovered is that even anticipating stress triggers the same chemical response in our bodies as the actual event does. In other words, we do not even have to actually experience the stressor, we simply have to think we might experience it and our bodies are already responding! What is important about this is that our bodies were not designed to handle this kind of low grade, persistent, emotional or psychological stress, and the consequences of living this way over a longer period of time are significant. According to Sapolsky, some of those consequences include ulcers, heart disease, high blood pressure, fatigue, certain forms of diabetes, memory loss and other decreased brain function, sleep deprivation, depression, and even certain forms of cancer. In the workplace, this kind of stress can have other consequences, such as absenteeism, increased conflict with co-workers, and loss of job morale and productivity. Obviously this is not encouraging news, but the problem does not have to be overwhelming. Perhaps there will always be a certain measure of stress in life and the workplace, but there are a number of things that can be done to lessen that stress and its results. For example, clearly defined and understood workplace expectations along with a tangible connection between effort and reward or results are two great places to start. I believe that one of the greatest pleasures we get in this life is being able to “work” at something we truly enjoy. That may sound like something of a dream, but perhaps it does not need to be as hard as we think. Creating places of work where people really want to be may take an investment of time, energy and resources, but the overall benefits to personal and organizational health are well worth that investment.