Lions and Zebras and Stress, Oh My


One of my healthy addictions is watching National Geographic TV specials.

Last week I wrote about the growing spotlight on employee wellbeing. This week I saw a National Geographic special titled “Stress: Portrait of a Killer.” Dr. Robert Sapolsky, neurobiologist at Stanford, has been studying stress for 30 years, and is proving that workplace stress creates a biological reaction that can kill brain cells, add fat to our bellies and unravel our chromosomes.

In early man – and in animals today – stress was a short-term reaction to danger. The lion chases the zebra, and the zebra experiences a spike in adrenalin and starts hightailing it away. When the danger is gone, the zebra’s chemistry returns to normal.

Not so in men and women. Once we get stressed, we hang onto it for dear life, lying awake at night, ruminating, comfort eating, worrying about the future and generally doing unhealthy things to our bodies. When our memories lapse we seldom attribute it to a common cause: stress.

One area that caught my attention in Sapolsky’s findings is that destructive stress occurs more often in people at the lower levels of the corporate hierarchy, who have little control over their destiny. (Amazingly, the same is true in the animal kingdom. Sapolsky studies orangutans, and those at the bottom of the orangutan ladder suffer more stress-related biological difficulties, including additional belly fat!)

Can we do anything about this danger? Sure we can. Certainly, managing stress is mostly an inside job, up to the individual to use coping skills. But as managers, we can reduce employee stress in many ways.

Give people more control, starting with minor issues like when they go to lunch, how they set up their work areas and when they use their vacation time.

Within the context of what needs to be accomplished, let them plan their work and set their own deadlines. If extra effort is required, let them decide when to work overtime, and whether to work at home or the office.

Provide advance notice and an agenda for meetings so they can plan their schedules and consider ideas they may want to put forth.

Don’t expect people to work till they drop – or when they’re sick.

Ask for input on challenges instead of making decisions and then passing along orders.

Approach difficulties calmly; don’t throw temper tantrums.

When you need to coach an employee for improved performance, ask them what they think would help them reach the goal. Validate their suggestions. Express that they are valuable team members and you want to help them find solutions.

No one wants to feel like a lion is chasing them, especially when it becomes a 24/7 encounter. Help your team to put down their worries and enjoy life. And that means you, too.

Susan Drake is president of Spellbinders Internal and External Marketing. Contact her at