Don’t Stress About Stress?

NOTE: After publication today, Andy Smith wrote to me to say that “we closed down Positive Engagement some time back, so I’m not working alongside Tim at the moment (although I wouldn’t rule it out in the future).”

Dr Tim Luckcock is the headmaster of Uplands Junior School in Highfields. He is also the cause of considerable stress for his staff, which has forced them into the unenviable position of having to take industrial action in order to resolve their ever growing grievances.

Dr Luckcock’s business guru friend and colleague, Andy Smith — who works alongside him at Positive Engagement (a management consultancy) — however has some sage advice for the headmasters exploited employees: “Stress can be good for you — if you have the right mindset.”

Smith dispensed with this bizarre advice (just last week) in an article on his web site that dreamt of the possibilities that may eventuate if this strange claim were true. As he concluded: “Think about the implications of having a ‘stress-is-enhancing’ mindset.”

Or what Smith might have wrote was: “Think about the implications of inculcating a ‘stress-is-enhancing’ mindset in your already overworked and underpaid staff.”

Allegedly such a miraculous turn-about in minds is easy to inaugurate, and can be delivered by getting stressed employees to watch nine minutes of video to focus their minds on the enhancing effects of stress!

The research (yes academic research) that Smith was referring to was a journal article published this April titled “Rethinking stress: The role of mindsets in determining the stress response”; that was based upon the Ph.D. research of management consultant, Alia Crum, and co-authored by Peter Salovey (the president of Yale University), and best-selling positive psychology corporate-consultant Shawn Achor.

Although the ever positive trio acknowledge that “stress is pervasive and debilitating”; they lament that stress “is portrayed in a negative light in the news, in health classes, in entertainment media, and in the workplace.” Fuelling what they consider to be a “stress about stress” mindset that, “paradoxically, may be contributing to its negative impact.” They go on:

Contrarily, if one holds a stress-is-enhancing mindset, then one will be more likely to engage in actions that help meet the demand, value, or goal underlying the stressful situation (such that the stress is actively utilized toward enhancing ends).

To arrive at such counter-intuitive conclusions, Dr Crum and her happy friends studied 388 employees of a large international financial institution “undergoing dramatic downsizing and restructuring in response to the recession.” Thus the allegedly willing participants were facing “an assortment of potentially stressful conditions including financial and job insecurity and increased pressure and workload due to changes in job criteria and a reduced number of employees.”

Under such dire circumstances we are informed that recruitment into the study was entirely voluntary (cough: bullshit), as all the workers were invited by email “from the company’s Human Resources department offering the opportunity to participate in a ‘stress management training program.’”

The study then proceeded to demonstrate that when the “volunteers” were shown three 3-minute videos over the course of a week, they could be induced to believe that stress was not debilitating. (Note: “The videos were embedded in a Qualtrics survey to ensure that each participant had viewed each video.” In the future, such techniques would make it easy to administer such productivity enhancing videos to all manner of workers, willing or otherwise.)

None too surprisingly, the workers examined in the study were evidently all too ready to acquiesce to the suggestive videos shown to them as a part of their so-called stress management training program. Indeed:

Participants seemed to change their mindsets about stress quite readily. Whereas those in the enhancing condition developed more of a stress-is-enhancing mindset as a result of watching clips biased in that direction, those in the debilitating condition showed just the opposite by developing more of a stress-is-debilitating mindset.

Bizarrely, the study in question didn’t bother to “assess how long the stress mindset effects lasted beyond 2 weeks.” I would hazard a guess: not very long.

Either way, despite the all-too-evident misuses to which their findings will be put, the researchers feel the need to assert their ethical high ground, noting that their intention was “not to make the case that stress is fundamentally enhancing or to try to debunk the literature that demonstrates the debilitating effects of stress.”

Nevertheless they conclude: “The findings of these studies indicate that people can be primed to adopt a stress-is-enhancing mindset, which can have positive consequences relating to improved health and work performance.”

Priming workers to improve their work performance would of course be a dream-come-true for the ruling class and fat-cat bosses. Thus it is a little concerning to say the least that Dr Crum boasts of having worked as an “organizational trainer and consultant, creating, delivering, and evaluating workshops on conflict and stress management for corporations including UBS, Wal-mart, Amgen, and Colgate-Palmolive.”

Moreover utilizing the results of their research Dr Crum and Shawn Achor teamed up with another positive psychology corporate trainer, Eric Karpinski, to form ReThinkStress — which is in the process of helping corporations prime workers to adopt the profit-enhancing stress-is-enhancing mindset.

Finally it is worth observing that one of the Dr Crum’s positive thinking colleagues is the mindfulness guru Ellen Langer, who worked with Crum to coauthor the controversial journal article “Mind-Set matters: Exercise and the placebo effect” (which was published in 2007). Langer having been Harvard University’s first tenured woman professor of psychology, whose discoveries helped trigger the positive psychology movement. (For more on the tyranny of positive thinking, see footnote#10 “Challenging the Stanford Prison Experiment.”)

Of more interest though is the fact that in her pursuit of mindfulness — “the idea that simply paying attention to our everyday lives can make us happier and healthier” — Langer suggests that “[w]e need to open our minds to possibility” of the impossible! Thus in an article published by Psychology Today she put forward the ridiculous idea that some unique individuals (an Indian guru in this case) may be rendered invisible in photographs. This piece of nonsense invited the fairly comradely response from one of her colleagues, “Ellen, we don’t need more irrationality (you must be a sought-after guest at seances!).”

Mindfulness, if you didn’t know, is of course just one of the many obsessions of Dr Tim Luckcock’s colleagues in the murky world of Neurolinguistic programming (NLP). As can be illustrated by the otherworldly interests of former Leicester based NLP practitioner, Jamie Smart — who now preaches the theosophical creed of innate health — who happily tweeted last month: “Currently reading ‘Mindfullness: The No-diet Diet Book’ by one of my apprentices, Elaine Fairman – very good!”

The nonsense goes on….and on...

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