Do you feel safe at work? When asked that question, you might think of physical safety. But as our jobs have switched from physical labor and manufacturing to office and customer-service oriented jobs that require a high level of inter-personal interactions, workplace safety has become more about social and emotional safety.
Social stress is the brain and body’s natural response to threatening behavior by other people or undesired interpersonal interactions. Examples of social threats in the workplace include: getting unsolicited feedback, a micromanaging boss, peer bullying, hostile tone e-mails, and being excluded from decision-making that affects your job.
The body’s responses to social threats are biochemically the same as its responses to physical threats. The same parts of the brain activate and the same “fight, flight or freeze” responses trigger hormonal and physical changes in our body. However, when we are in a threatening work environment, we often don’t have the option to escape the threat. We might want to run away from an angry customer, but we can’t. So, the unprocessed stress builds up in our bodies and becomes anxiety, the chronic expectation that something awful will soon occur. Anxiety is the largest growing mental health diagnosis in the U.S., and the Centers for Disease Control estimates that 80% of our medical expenditures are stress-related.
Work-related stresses cause not only physical and emotional harm, but can also lead to disengagement and decreased productivity. A Gallop poll from this summer showed that 70% of currently employed adults are “not engaged” or “actively disengaged” at their job. Similarly, a recent monster.com survey says that 60 percent of workers experience stress in the workplace on a daily basis. In the same survey, 81% of working adults want to find a new job, and they say respect and appreciation are the things they want the most in a new job (more than better salary or benefits!).
At our workshop during the OD Network conference last weekend, Dr. Sharon Liu and I unveiled our Social Threat Advisory System, a visual modeled after one developed by the Department of Homeland Security. We asked participants to rate their current level of workplace threat. Take a look at the graphic associated with this blog and place yourself on the social threat scale.
In the coming weeks, the Foresight Blog will provide a series of brain-based techniques for overcoming social stress and revitalizing at work. Help is on the way!