Thanks to a recent survey from Robert Half conducted in 8 different countries with over 23.000 respondents we now know that American and German workers are the happiest ones and Belgian and French are the unhappiest ones.
At the same time this survey tells us that Germans take the most interest in their jobs but they are also the most stressed ones at their work whereas the Dutch workers are second at being interested in their job and they have the lowest stress level of all.
Belgians and French are somewhere in the middle of the indicator of interest in their work with a rather high level of stress.
Reading these results I was wondering what is the link between happiness at work and stress?
If we look into the definitions of Wikipedia we find what is happiness (limited to the psychological part of the definition): “Happiness is a mental or emotional state of well-being which can be defined by, among others, positive or pleasant emotions ranging from contentment to intense joy”
And what is stress: “In psychology, stress is a feeling of strain and pressure. …
Stress can be external and related to the environment, but may also be created by internal perceptions that cause an individual to experience anxiety or other negative emotions surrounding a situation, such as pressure, discomfort, etc., which they then deem stressful.
Humans experience stress, or perceive things as threatening, when they do not believe that their resources for coping with obstacles (stimuli, people, situations, etc.) are enough for what the circumstances demand. When we think the demands being placed on us exceed our ability to cope, we then perceive stress.”
Too many negative emotions for a long time create illness. That’s no secret. But if we cannot decrease negative emotions by increasing positive emotions we can only decrease stress by reducing the stress factors that created it.
In other words: happiness does not help us to create healthier work environments.
Don’t misunderstand me. I don’t say that we should not work on happiness at work. It certainly has a positive impact on motivation and engagement but not on reducing stress.
If it’s not happiness that we need, what do we need to reduce stress?
Touching the ground of negative emotions, as the definition of stress tells us, we perceive things as threatening because we judge that we are not capable to handle them.
On what do we base our judgment? On our instinct, programmed millions of years ago when we had to fight or run away from the savage wildlife.
Actually, the typical human stress reaction that we know as the 3 F (fight, flight or freeze) were very useful when we lived in caves and were threatened by dangerous animals. Unfortunately this part of our brain has not changed over the years, whereas our environment has: we don’t live in caves anymore but in a demanding VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) environment. So today, we perceive our boss, colleague, client, or even our thoughts, as « dangerous animals » and our brain just reacts as if we were facing a life- threatening situation. Our brain doesn’t see the difference.
We need to learn to react differently.
To reduce stress we need to understand how the human brain works and get out of our automatic reply. Our managers, colleagues, clients and our own thoughts are no bears or tigers. As individuals we need to learn to identify what triggers us and instead of reacting immediately in an instinctive way we need to ask ourselves some crucial questions:
- Am I really in a life-threatening situation?
- What does really trigger my stress reaction?
- What alternatives do I have?
- What decision could I take towards this situation that helps me to see things differently?
By seeing things differently you actually use a different part of your brain; you mainly move your brain activities from the instinctive part to the adaptive part that helps you to be more creative and more flexible and to decrease stress. (cfr neuro-cognitive approach).
In my opinion, if we learn more about how the human brain functions and learn how to use our adaptive brain, in combination with a company culture of communication (talking to each other), empathy (understanding each other) and collaboration (working with each other) we will certainly decrease the general stress level.
If the increase of happiness does not decrease stress, on the contrary, decreasing stress helps us to free room for more happiness.