When Good Stress turns Bad

Author: Fay MacDonald

When good stress turns bad


Stress can be motivating… for a while

Most of us need a deadline or some form of stressor to motivate us into action. Checkpoint meetings, calendar alerts, alarm clocks!

Great leaders and managers typically thrive on deadlines. However, to remain great leaders, they will typically have cycles of speeding up and slowing down. This is how they manage their own resilience.

Many large organisations actively encourage their senior people to take “out-of-the-box” time, away-days for reflection and creativity time. This allows people to breathe for a few moments, reflect on where they have arrived at in relation to the initial strategy and goals and to plan ahead for the next big phase.

This is something which needs to be encouraged more and more in large and complex Change Projects and Programmes – particularly in the Public Sector (incl. Healthcare) in the UK which is undergoing enormous amounts of change at the moment.

Seeing Stress in your Cereal is Definately NOT a Good Thing

When the pace is unrelenting in Change Projects and Programmes, the positive aspects of the stress can turn the tide to the opposite direction.

All the good work and results achieved start to ebb away. Success can only build on success if a break is taken.

Studies have shown that:

  • highly stressed people have higher levels of cortisol in the morning;and
  • Monday mornings are the peak time for heart attacks.

Acceleration and Multiloading

An article in the Sunday Times at the beginning of this year quoted Jochen Menges (a lecturer at Judge Business School in Cambridge) on the results of his study regarding how continual pushing of people and organisations can in the end lead to the organisation suffering deterioration rather than improvement.

The concepts which Menges writes about based on a study he conducted of nearly 100 businesses.

Organisations and people are finding themselves in states of stress and change fatigue because the stress-levels and speed are never varied. When more is delivered…even more is asked for.

The motivation of the initial deadline is exciting. However, if this pace is not regulated, the stress which was previously good turns to bad.

A couple of terms Menges used are:

  • Acceleration trap – where businesses [or organisations] push their people hard for a long time will tend to get worse results than those that allow a bit more room to manoeuvre.
  • Multiloading – when an organisation has so many priorities and everything is labelled critical, but nobody knows what is actually important.

Accelerated, Overloaded and Unrealistic Change Projects

In the years that I have been working on planning and delivering Change Projects I have seen examples of the above styles in many organisations and individuals.

For example, some Project Managers

    • Writing up the Risks and Issues register or the highlight report….it appears as though everything MUST BE the priority TODAY – which translates to lots of wheel spinning and a lack of focus;
    • The Project Plan is usually out-of-date, ie. many uncompleted tasks with end-dates in the past;
    • Multiple tasks are stacked against a few individuals in the same time-frame…all requiring full time!

When the Project reaches this stage of so many things being CRITICAL, OVERDUE and UNREALISTICALLY SCHEDULED… it really is the time for the P.M. to have a biiiggg coffee-break and re-align the priorities to the original strategy.  This is a Project which is sliding off the rails

Great Leaders & Great Managers naturally…

  • Have self confidence;
  • Are innovative;
  • Are decisive;
  • Pick themselves up after a defeat;

Long term pressure and stress…

  • Reduces peoples’ self confidence – Management, including Project Managers and Senior Executives will question whether they can really stand their ground and say NO to a deadline being achievable;
  • Squashes innovation and creativity – naturally creative and innovative people are ground-down, they feel that they are on a treadmill and stop looking at the sky for inspiration and the road ahead for risks;
  • Lack ability to be decisive – too many options, too many issues…all competing for the same CRITICAL attention, time is wasted if decisions are not taken;
  • People are less and less able to pick themselves up after a defeat.

The Importance of having Chill Out Time to remain Creative and Progressive

The organisation managing the change needs to recognise that a pace which is sustainable needs to be found. Running back-to-back Projects which flog the same few people at a frenetic pace will not be sustainable and the impact will be that good people will leave, knowledge will be lost with them and the pace will slow down by virtue of trying / driving too hard.

Well the above won’t change all the Projects which could be in trouble today…but possibly I can inspire some of you readers to take a break for a few minutes to re-charge…Have a look and listen to the youtube clips below.

Chill OutYoutube clip of John Lee Hooker and Carlos Santana: Chill Out…Change is gonna come

Sand Dancer Youtube clip of a free spirited creative guy who is creating beautiful images on beaches…shared with me on Facebook this week …enjoy it!

COMMENT & CONTACT: Please feel free to leave a comment below or if you would like some advice on any of the issues above which may relate to a Project your are working with please contact me using the contact form in the menu at the top of the page.




Some resources to assist with STRESS MANAGMENT…available on Amazon


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