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Stress Eq and Unstress You! EQ and the New Workplace

By Michael E. Rock, Ed.D. |

It was 4:00 pm. The meeting had gone on longer than planned. The main reason was because the boss came unprepared and then berated people around the table for "not having done your homework."

No one said anything, although you could cut the air with a knife! There were bristles on the back of everyone's necks.

People were sick and tired of this particular manager and his abusive behaviour. The subtle put-downs, sometimes the yelling, usually the swear words.

The bottom line was ugly: low morale and low profits. He said he was going to do something about things. This meeting was to show who was boss! "I don't care how you do it," he intoned, "but those profits better be up in the next quarter or a number of you are out of here!"

On the way back to her office, Jennifer said to Bill, "I'm out of here as soon as I can find something else!" Bill replied, "You've got that one right. Who does he think he is anyway? I don't think anybody wants to do anything for him. He's a jerk!"

How many times does the above scene go on in companies? When researchers write up the consequences of these kinds of meetings, results usually come under the heading of "industrial sabotage."1 When power is used abusively -- whether in offices or in the home or in government -- people do not get the work done; they get even.

In this fourth of a five-part series on EQ (emotional intelligence) and the new workplace, we are now beginning to realize how costly it is, in terms of health and financial profits, in having a manager with a low stress management EQ. Immaturity costs companies millions of dollars in lost revenues, repeat customers, and creative employee ideas.

When people and employees experience stress, there are three options for them:

I. Resolve the situation. (Resolver strategy)


II. Withdraw and stick to oneself. (Turtle strategy)
(results in withdrawal / dullness / depression / illness)


III. Fight back and create a stir. (Skunk strategy)
(results in lashing out / anger / frustration / illness)


One of the realities that has been documented in Canada, about depression in the workplace is that it's costing companies and taxpayers enormous amounts. One report by the Mercantile & General Reinsurance Co. of Toronto, shows that a fast-growing group called "employees with psychological disabilities" is getting larger all the time, much faster than those with physical disabilities.2 3

Canada now spends over $325 million a year just treating employees with depression -- a consequence of the stress they are under. Canadian physicians wrote up more than 5 million prescriptions for Prozac and Zoloft, antidepressant drugs.4 Dr. Randy Katz, a clinical psychologist and director of the treatment-evaluation clinic for stress, anxiety and depression at the Toronto Hospital says that "anxiety certainly is the common cold of the nineties."5 Fifteen years ago, Dr. Keith Travis wrote, "Two-thirds of all stress-related problems result from 'abusive, unsatisfying, limiting or ill-defined relationships' in the workplace or out of it."6 There is no indication to show that the reality has changed significantly.

In one U.S. study, average annual health care costs for a patient in the depressed group of 6,257 members totalled $4,246, compared to $2,371 for the non-depressed sample.7 In another study, "clinical depression resulted in 213 million lost working days, largely among employees ages 30 to 44, according to a study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and by the Analysis Group, a Cambridge, Mass., consulting company. The researchers put the annual cost of absenteeism and diminished productivity resulting from depression at $23.8 billion."8

Not all causes of stress derive from abusive bosses. The modern pace of technology, downsizings, insecurity of jobs, restructuring and change contribute significantly as well.

So, what are we to do? How can we cope? Keep in mind two things:

  • Stress is a double-edged dilemma: good stress is what is called eustress ("eu" for "well," "good" in Greek), the kind that gets us excited about life; unhealthy stress is called distress ("dis" for harmful), the kind that slowly, but surely, destroys us.

    Case example: The late and noted British psychologist Dr. Hans J. Eyseneck, through the use of his "The Health Personality Test," found a strong correlation between certain personalities and specific illnesses.9 I have an example from one of my management books:10 A noted Bay Street lawyer attributed some of his professional misconduct to inordinate stress demands. Caught in the vicious cycle of needing more and more positive recognition, he did things, under stress and overwork, that caused him to use faulty judgment in his legal practice.11

  • Stress is often in the eye of the beholder. One of the most amazing studies that I'm aware of is the work of Dr. Shlomo Breznitz, a psychologist at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He describes the following case situation.

    Case example: Stress hormone levels always reflected the estimates rather than the actual distance of soldiers he was testing on a gruelling 40-kilometre forced march. By giving more or less accurate information on what to expect to different groups of soldiers, he found their stress levels were in direct relation to their estimates or expectations based upon the information they had.12

In terms of EQ and emotional intelligence, the perception that I can handle life's stresses will, of course, allow me to cope more effectively. One's potential to cope, therefore, is an essential ingredient for today's changing workplaces. This, of course, is not a licence to hire employees with high EQ stress scores and then put them into abusive or stress-dominant environments. They will certainly cope more effectively, and everything else being equal, will also make the decision to leave your employ -- another cost to you for not managing human capital.

Take the following simple 12-item EQ self-test. Be honest with yourself.

Item QUESTION Yes(x) No(x)
1 Do you handle adverse events well?
2 Do you manage frustration effectively?
3 Do you live life so as not to create a feeling of “overload”?
4 Do you cope well in new situations, with significant unknown factors?
5 Do you usually minimize anxiety to avoid feeling stuck?
6 Do you generally get a good night's sleep?
7 Are you able to hold back comments in a disagreement even though you would like to "blast" the person?
8 Can you say that “road rage” for you personally is under control?
9 Do you cope well with daily events that can sometimes be frustrating?
10 Do you avoid losing control so as not to hurt people physically, verbally, or emotionally?
11 Would associates say you manage your anger well?
12 Do you deal well with disappointment?

How did you do?

High EQ types will consistently score between 10-12 almost every time.

A more formal term for what I have called the manageable you is what the EQ-i (or Emotional Quotient-Inventory) calls the "Stress Management EQ Scale."

People who score high on the stress management scale are people who for the most part handle what life throws at them. They can "roll with the punches," so to speak. They do not get out of control. And yet, with life's stressful events, they do not fall apart either.

Let's look at the 12 items again that make up the stress management EQ scale. There are 2 sub-components to the interpersonal scale. They are listed below.

  • Items 1-6: Stress Tolerance. This EQ core competency allows individuals to withstand adverse events and stressful situations without "falling apart."13 In addition, these individuals positively manage the stress. They are resourceful in coming up with methods, techniques to diffuse the stress and to remain effective, on the job and at home. Sometimes psychologists have referred to this competency as "ego strength." High scorers on this EQ factor face difficulties head on, and don't get carried away by strong emotions. "Even keel" is a good expression to describe them. We even hear about this type of person: "She just doesn't get flustered!"

    Workplace application: Obviously in today's workplaces, being able to "juggle a lot of balls" seems to be a prerequisite.14 Some can do it well, others can't. If employees feel overwhelmed with stress-related assignments or a culture that is not healthy, the business is simply asking for trouble: legal, psychological, and financial. You will know if this is occurring because there will be an inordinate amount of mistakes made by employees. We can always say that making mistakes is part of learning; but we should not make repetitive or ongoing dangerous mistakes. These mistakes, of course, will show up through poor concentration, difficulties in making decisions, and inappropriate or inadequate ways of handling difficulties.

    Recommendation: We cannot change the macro dynamics that are coursing through our world today. But knowing that change for most people creates, or, at least, invites, a bout of anxiety, managers must do their best to keep open the channels of communication, treat employees with extra care, and be genuine in their relationships. Companies must continually be on the lookout for symptoms and signs of burnout: ongoing employee frustration, absenteeism, tardiness, sleep deprivation, shortness of temper, glassy eyes, cynicism, etc. As we saw in the opening vignette, the use of power and force only exacerbates the problem. Build a work culture that minimizes helplessness and hopelessness.

  • Items 7-12: Impulse Control. This EQ core competency allows individuals to cope with delayed gratification. They don't have to have everything "right now"! In an age when children have been raised with instant gratification, through technology and the fast pace of living, we are often reaping the negative results of wanting things now. In schools, on the streets, in malls, people seem less friendly, most pushy, showing greater disrespect and belligerence. Parking lots and crowded highways all too often show evidence of low EQ types and their lack of impulse control. To use a gun to settle your anger makes the result permanent when the other person dies.

    Workplace application: Violence in the workplace is today's number one killer of employees, especially in the United States. The In a previous release by the Geneva-based International Labour Organization of its "Violence at Work" report showed shocking statistics. It is worth quoting key items:15

    1. In the U.S., 1,000 people are killed in job settings each year. Homicide is the leading cause of death on the job for women and the second-leading cause for men;
    2. In European Union countries, 4 per cent of employees have experienced physical violence and 8 per cent have faced bullying. Figures are higher for employees in the public sector, at 8 and 13 per cent respectively.
    3. Workers who are at high risk of experiencing violence are the ones who handle valuables, provide health care or social services, or do jobs that involve inspection and enforcement. Transit workers are also at risk.
    4. Immigrant workers and members of minority ethnic groups experience a disproportionate amount of violence. This includes homicide at work among immigrants to the U.S. and abuse and sexual harassment among Filipinodomestic workers overseas.
    5. When sexual harassment is included, Canada comes in fourth behind France, Argentina and Romania, with almost 10 per cent of women reporting harassment.

    Recommendation: We are at a stage now, I believe, in our workplaces where tensions can boil over more than ever. Corporate downsizings have been one major stressor, for sure. But what about outrageous executive compensation packages that are handed out even when a company loses money! On a personal basis, if you find that you are acting out your frustrations and anger, you need to seek professional help or, at least, talk to a good friend who will give you sound feedback. Transactional Analysts of the "I'm OK, You're OK" school ofpsychology, will say that about 97% of all anger is "racket." By "racket" they mean that it is not authentic. Authentic anger is indignation, outrage over an actual injustice, e.g., a child murdered. If 97% of all anger is masquerading for other buried feelings, then we need to uncover these feelings, release them appropriately which, in turn, frees up tremendous positive energy and get on with life. On-the-job abusiveness, explosive and unpredictable behaviour are clear signs of low impulse control. If you manage someone like this, get help forthem. If you are like that, get help for yourself. It is not only a psychological requirement; it is an ethical one as well.

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