business, Leadership

Our Work Is Literally Killing Us

We have all watched the shows at one time or another. The heard of antelope is happily grazing on the grass. One thinks he hears something and lifts his head. Heart pounding, and alert to every movement around him. He doesn’t make a move, but still his closest herd member feels his distress and also stops and lifts his head on high alert. They are motionless. Soon the other members of the herd all stop grazing and lift their heads. “What was that rustle in the grass? A lion perhaps?” Soon they all hear a sound and run as fast as they can to escape danger. If one feels threatened, they all feel threatened.


It is a biological process that makes this all happen. The early warning system, called cortisol, is what filled the first antelope. Sense. Threat. Run. Every member of the herd lifted their heads and went off together because without the group they would surly get eaten. That feeling that something is not right protects the antelope and humans.

Now look across your office. Everyone is working, joking perhaps while they do their jobs. Rumors start about one guy in the office who might get fired. One by one the whole team begins to question his job. There is a heightened sense of awareness when doors open. “Is that the boss? There is a meeting in conference room? Why?” Nothing concrete, just an awareness that their job safety is in trouble. But the stress they feel, the cortisol coursing through their veins whenever they get called into the bosses’ office, will distract the whole team until they feel they are safe from danger—real or imagined.

The slow death of the workforce. Now suppose this office team works under this stress every day, every week? It’s not a huge danger, just silent rumors that permeate every cubicle. Cortisol doesn’t distinguish between what is reality or what is perceived in the mind, so it will continue to drip in the system at every moment to protect us from danger. The problem is that when it’s present it also has to turn off our immune system. Its an efficient biological process when everything goes as planned: Sense. Threat. Run. Once safety returns, the cortisol stops and the immune system boots back up. But long term stress doesn’t work that way. It can’t stop unless it feels safe. Without the stopping of the cortisol, we begin to suffer the long term effects of a downed immune system-heart disease, cancer, and constant colds and flu. It is a slow death.


Turn off the source of the problem. Look back at your workplace and really see what is going on. The water cooler gossip and chatter are your first clues. The blame starts among the group. Our manger lied, a colleague stabbed us in the back, the boss doesn’t like us. They begin to beat themselves up and worry about about what they said in the meeting, “did I speak out of turn?” They cycle through the things over and over because they sense a threat from within. Cortisol is doing its job to make them paranoid and everyone begins to prepare for the threat. The stress is real.

Every man for himself. It is the team leaders’ worst nightmare; every person senses the threat and begins to feel worried. There is no “good feeling” chemicals (oxytocin) coming from the brain, so we are less productive. It is harder to concentrate and that interferes with our creative ability. Without risk taking we don’t innovate. We are more selfish and less concerned for the others on our team. There is a greater lack of trust for management and colleagues. We show up, do our work, and adapt to our environment, but we are no longer safe and secure in our workplace. We are doing the best job possible.

Leaders Eat Last. Simon Sinek, in his book Leaders Eat Last, studied the U.S. Marines and how their leaders trained and cared for their troops. The goal is provide an environment where every soldier could trust each other with their lives, literally. More than the rigorous training, the marching in the rain, constant yelling by sergeants who teach that it is no longer “I, but we”, there is a balance in the environment through respect. The leaders of higher rank have clearly earned their positions and status and yet when everyone assembles in the mess hall,the leaders eat last. Like guards standing at the gate, they are watching over their teams, nourishing the first, and then they can sit down. Complete and total trust is created in the environment. No one fears that they will be left to fend for themselves. The team wins.

So what is a manager to do? It takes a strong leader to change the environment of fear. Layoffs or poor executives are a reality in the workplace, but your team? Your team has you to sit down and address concerns openly and without recourse. Filter out the rumors and the drama and deal only with the facts. Guide your team to an understanding that by working together for the company’s common goal, their mission statement, everyone benefits. Mentorteam members at risk. Show them what they need to do to work better so they look their best to upper management. Meet with higher ups and update them on the team efforts and how they are working together to meet the company mission. Herd everyone together on a regular basis so they do not fear the rustles in the grass. Post meeting schedules, give clearly defined goals, and interact with them daily so they feel protected. Ensure that you are doing everything possible to protect them, your team. Eat last.

The statistics on long term cortisol stress levels are staggering. But things can change. Small, simple changes in the workplace, something as simple as meeting with your team every day, can reduce that constant drip of fear that is felt. And have a lunch out. Laughter produces oxytocin; it makes us feel good and boosts our immune system. Makes us feels safe and that means more productive and creative team efforts. Small changes earn big rewards.

What is your workplace drama? What are a few of the little things that your boss or management does to reinforce the team mission?

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