When Tragedy Strikes, How Can [Work] Life Carry On?

Has Stress Become More Stressful?

2017 has been a whopper of a year – Three major hurricanes have hit the US and wrought massive destruction and loss of life, and according to science, this might become the norm. Mass shootings have become far too frequent and increasingly deadly. And then there’s politics and the non-stop divisive, doomsday-like messages we are bombarded with minute-by-minute about the threat of nuclear war, hacking, refugees, militants, and tragedies of all shapes, sizes, and geographies. With all this noise and chaos, how are we supposed to focus on our day-to-day and carry on with our lives and work unaffected?

Much has been talked about on the topics of distraction and focus; there is no debate over the frequency and complexity with which the average workers’ life is potentially interrupted by social media messages, emails or a talkative coworker. But the type of distraction brought on by major news or natural disasters is an entirely different level of distraction that can interfere with people’s mental state in a far more serious way than the small stuff.

According to the American Psychological Association, 68% of employees report that work is a significant source of stress. And of that group, 51% say they are less productive because of it.

When people are stressed in normal conditions, we experience shifts in the part of our brain responsible for fight or flight – the limbic system of the brain. Negative news – even news that does not directly impact us—is viewed by the brain as a threat. The brain’s response is automatic and naturally negative. We have a default “negativity bias” which literally means we are hard-wired to tune into and be more affected by bad or unpleasant news than positive news. When the news or situations are especially gruesome or monumental, we are impacted on an emotional level instantly. Political stress has even been linked to forms of PTSD (post-traumatic stress syndrome) more typically associated with people who have experienced war or severe tragedy. Has stress become more stressful?

According to a recent Gallup report on The State of The American Workplace, out of 100 million workers, 51% of employees are not engaged and 16% are actively disengaged. That’s more than two-thirds of workers who are already less-than attentive on any given day.  Add to this a public or personal tragedy, and an overwhelming majority of workers are struggling to focus.

VUCA, an acronym coined by the military – Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous – has been adopted by business in recent years to describe the tumultuous times we live in. It’s becoming the new norm to live in a state of constant turmoil. But that doesn’t mean the norm is normalizing. Stress may be a natural reaction, but constant stress isn’t a natural or healthy state. Acute stress – the most common form brought on by the recent past or anticipated events can impact people on a physical level with headaches, stomach aches and/or emotional distress. All of these contribute to decreased focus or even time out of work. When the stress becomes chronic, it’s can lead to more severe issues such as a higher risk of heart disease, stroke and even cancer. So along with being less productive, stress over long periods of time has the power to literally kill!

So what can we do to alleviate reactions to stress? The science of Resiliency is the answer.

TRACOM’s Resiliency program offers six strategies for improving resiliency. Here are a few that are highly beneficial in the face of extreme challenges:

  1. Challenge Automatic Beliefs
  2. Gratitude
  3. Giving

Fight Your Negativity Bias

Challenging automatic beliefs may not feel intuitive when we are overwhelmed by things happening in the world broadly – for example, when we hear about a plane crash our negativity bias triggers fear and when it’s our turn to travel, we can experience fear of flying based on news of events years ago. Challenging our thinking and biases requires us to and think rationally rather than emotionally.  We can pause to consider how plane crashes are an extremely rare occurrence compared to the thousands of daily flights that take off and arrive successfully.

When political shifts create bad news about populations of people who may be impacted, we often experience stress even if we ourselves are not in the group of people impacted. Challenging our automatic thoughts is not easy – it takes a moment of pause and intention to consider the news, identify why we may be reacting and then bring our thoughts back to a more realistic perspective of personal impact. This isn’t a suggestion that we not care about what’s happening in the world if it didn’t actually affect us, rather it can help us to shift from internalizing the stress as if something is happening to us directly, to a broader state of empathy and mindful awareness for how we can counter or accept the state of the world.

What Are You Thankful For?

Gratitude about the positive things in our life is also an amazingly simple way to look more objectively at strife – while most tragedies don’t immediately appear to have a silver lining – if we focus on what’s good in our life versus what’s bad we consciously invite balance from negative thoughts. For example, when random violence occurs we can shift our focus from overwhelming grief about the magnitude of loss, to recognition of stories of brave acts, kindness witnessed between strangers and ways we can fortify society in the future against harm.

Support Causes that Move You

Giving – money, time, supplies – is a proactive way to support tragedies from afar and helps both the recipient and the giver. When we contribute to help others overcome disasters, it can energize us to feel positive and proactive about an issue. Studies show that the impact of stress-related life experiences can increase the risk of death by as much as 30%; but when we spend time caring for others, there is zero increase in stress-related increase in death. That’s significant – one act of kindness can be the difference between long term adverse health and a sense of wellbeing associated with resilience.

In a world that often seems moving beyond our control, these three strategies can help you take some ownership.  They can reduce stress and help you focus on what matters most to you.

To learn more about coping with hardship, read about Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s resilience in the face of personal tragedy.

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