Recovery time from workplace stress is key to developing resilience

A lifestyle assessment tool used with Honda dealers has shown how individual employees recover from workplace stress, and helped boost their resilience. Tim Routledge explains. 

If you asked 10 people to define ‘stress’ the chances are they would give 10 different definitions. Stress shows itself in a variety of ways and what might be a stressful situation for me may not be for you.

What we all do have in common however is that our bodies all react to the pressures – or ‘load’ – around us by releasing, and responding to, the same stress hormones. Our individual ‘feelings’ of stress all come from the same underlying physiological state, whatever we do or don’t find stressful.

The UK charity Mental Health Foundation defines stress as: ‘the way you feel when you’re under abnormal pressure’.  We can’t duck the pressures of life and we can’t avoid or eliminate our stress response, whether our load on any given day seems normal or abnormal.

The good news is that we don’t need to. Our physiological response to load works very well. It is a natural and important mechanism that allows us to stay alert and safe and to perform effectively. So that’s all well and good – provided our bodies have a chance to recover from load, to recharge and be ready to start afresh tomorrow.

When the body’s ‘switch off’ function doesn’t allow enough recovery, what should be manageable becomes unmanageable. Then stress can negatively affect both personal wellbeing – how we feel and how well we look after ourselves – and interpersonal wellbeing – how we feel and behave towards each other.

Prolonged stress causes the negative effects that we hear so much about – effects on physical health including increased risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, digestive and sleep problems, and effects on mental health.

Instead of talking about stress in isolation, as appears to be the norm, we should include recovery in our dialogue if we want not just to survive the day-to-day, but to thrive.

The challenge is to find ways by which our physical, mental and emotional health can function fully together and create the conditions required for personal growth. We need to develop strategies for carrying the load and recovering physiologically so that we cope and stay resilient.

Assessments of the physiological aspects of load and recovery show the interplay between the two. How long the body spends in each physiological state, and to what intensity, can be measured using a specialised heart rate monitor. Instead of just measuring beats per minute, (a standard measurement of arousal level, or stress state), this type of monitor measures the variability of the interval between beats.

This heart rate variation (HRV) is an indication of the body’s state and can accurately show both the stress state and the recovery state. Worn over 72 hours, the monitor provides valuable physiological insights into when the body’s stress levels are highest and what might be causing them (tracked against a personal journal timeline). More crucially, it indicates when ther body is in recovery and how that’s being achieved.

There is a body of evidence from on-going research carried out by FirstBeat Technologies, who have developed and used this technology for over 15 years. A cross section of the Europe-wide working population participated, and over 90,000 assessment days (which equates to around 30,000 individuals) were analysed.

On average, participants spent 50% of their assessment time in a stress state and 26% of their time in a recovery state. (Other states such as doing exercise were also recorded and account for the balance of the time.)

It is thought that achieving about 30% recovery time during a 24-hour period is enough to restore your ‘batteries’,  on average, there is inadequate recovery going on. The best resource available to enable you to put back in what you’ve taken out is sleep, as this is the time when your body is most like to be in a physiological recovery state.

From this population, it was found that 7.5 hours of sleep is enough to yield the highest amount of recovery but when sleep duration is extended, the amount of recovery does not increase by the same proportion.

In self-rated ‘fit’ people, share of recovery in sleep is greater and they also report feeling more energetic. It was also found that recovery is better early in the week. Given its importance in recharging our energy levels, it’s easy to see why getting a good night’s sleep is critical and how a lack of it can leave us feeling tired, de-motivated, irritable, and lacking in concentration and critical thinking skills.

However, it’s not just how much but how good that sleep is too. Sleep quality is affected by many things: age; body mass index (BMI); gender; alcohol; eating late; how physically active you are; looking at blue-light emitting devices (yes, your iPhone); playing computer games; and even what you’re watching on TV.

It’s possible to have the ‘right amount’ of sleep, but if the quality of that sleep is poor then you may well not feel its benefits the next day.

This can negatively impact performance both at work and at home and while short periods of poor sleep are manageable, prolonged periods, which equate to the body spending more time in a stress state and not enough time in a recovery state, are not. On/off bouts of stress are perfectly natural and indeed good for people, chronic prolonged stress is not.

Case study: Honda dealerships

Over the last two years, Experience Insight used this lifestyle assessment tool to produce a ‘Resilience Index’ for individuals working in the UK retail automotive industry within Honda dealerships. Over 900 assessments days have been undertaken (featuring more than 300 participants), involving a 72-hour continuous monitoring period containing both working and non-working days.

Overall, the average time spent in a stress state within this group was 53% and in a recovery state it was 21%, so Honda staff were spending more time on average in the stress state than the wider population but less time recovering from it.

The average sleep duration for this group was 7hrs 34mins – precisely the amount that’s likely to yield the most recovery, so it is necessary to look at the quality of that sleep and see what’s impacting this (and it will be different for everybody) to see why this group is slightly down on overall recovery.

What this research highlights is that the ability of Honda staff to recover from the stress they experienced was more than 20% lower than average, a worrying finding given the ever-increasing demands on customer-facing staff in this sector.

The value in using this data comes from the conversations it starts. Having a 1:1 with a coach and a thorough review of the report is a powerful impetus for change. Knowing how lifestyle choices in diet, exercise, smoking and drinking (to name but a few) impact on physiology can positively influence decisions. Individuals can make an informed choice to set personal goals and take small steps towards enhancing recovery levels and improving resilience.

From an organisation’s point of view, there is value in knowing stress and recovery levels of employees, the organisation’s resilience index. Not only does it give a benchmark by which to measure the effectiveness of any interventions but it also highlights some of the common work-related stressors facing employees and therefore offers a chance to address these specifically.

Thinking holistically about wellbeing and resilience is also critical to making it better. Physiological data is only part of the story; attending to emotional and mental wellbeing is also a key element of any improvement.

At Honda, together with the lifestyle assessments, emotional intelligence profiling was used to measure how participants recognised and managed their  own emotions and those of others – as a framework for ‘bringing it all together’ and using this information constructively.

Emotional intelligence is a key component of resilience and developing it can help in dealing with potentially stressful situations more effectively.

With these interventions, there have been significant shifts in the attitudes and understanding of individuals about their stress, resilience and recovery. As a measure of this, at the dealerships involved, staff retention levels were 62% higher and sales and customer satisfaction significantly increased.

Achieving the same at an organisational level, i.e. delivering the cultural change that drives and sustains improvements, requires a wider acceptance of resilience as the issue and a real commitment to making the investment.

It’s interesting to note that many of the companies named in the Sunday Times ‘Top 100 Companies To Work For’ don’t score that well in the wellbeing and personal growth categories which together make up 25% of the scoring system.

Forward thinking organisations are those that see the focus on recovery and resilience as on-going and continual work in progress where the gains benefit everyone.

Tim Routledge is chief experience officer at Experience Insight.

2 Responses to Recovery time from workplace stress is key to developing resilience

  1. Alan Whitley 6 Feb 2018 at 9:06 am #

    Forward thinking organisations Tim are those that accept accountability for the stress they subject their employees to, use well proven diagnostic and analysis tools to understand the sources of stress within their organisation and resolve to eliminate or reduce the stress experienced at the source.

    They intervene in a proactive primary manner, not with secondary or ameliorative interventions such as those that you describe.

    Forward thinking organisations do not shift the burden for dealing with workplace stress on to their already stressed out employees, nor do they abdicate their responsibility for causing the situation.

    They accept that if they have an organisational problem with workplace stress they require an organisational response, and those responses address the factors that are the source of the stress being experienced.

    Forward thinking organisations understand that programs to increase employee’s resilience or coping skills do not cut the mustard when tested against the legislation, management standards or hierarchy of controls model.

    Telling organisations that apps and wearables is the leading edge approach to workplace stress management is manifestly wrong, and a dangerous position to take. There is decades of solid data and research by workplace stress academics and researchers available in the public domain that unanimously shows that Primary Interventions are the most efficacious, sustainable and cost effective means of dealing with this insidious issue. The methods and tools to achieve this are also readily available, and the legislation to support this can be found throughoutt the Nordic and Scandinavian countries, who, by no small coincidence, are always topping the survey lists as the happiest people on the planet.

    In summary Tim, the key to improving workplace stress is for companies to reduce the workplace stressors. This is the conversation that we should be having in publications such as this one

    • Tim Routledge 7 Feb 2018 at 12:22 pm #

      Alan, thanks for your measured and passionate response to the article. There’s nothing you say that I disagree with, but I believe that the use of physiological monitoring can help to identify the areas within the workplace (and outside it) that carry the biggest ‘load’, to enable forward thinking organisations to address these and reduce their impact if possible at an organisational and individual level. Very often the key ‘stressors’ as you label them are an intrinsic element of the work that needs to be done (e.g. dealing with customer complaints, being accurate at any manual task, etc), so the organisational response could be to acknowledge that but identify other areas where they can offset the impact of this load. What’s interesting about the biometrics is that the objective data that’s recorded is often at odds with the subjective responses people give when asked what causes them stress. My criticism of much conventional research is that designing remedial programmes based on what people say is affecting them can be entirely counterproductive. In order for companies to reduce ‘workplace stressors’, I believe they need to make better use of physiological data to more accurately identify what these stressors are, where they occur and how their negative impact can be removed, reduced or compensated for. Critical to all of this is the understanding that stress is not necessarily a bad thing – it is prolonged and unexpected stress that can literally be a killer – and the promotion of an individual’s resilience (their ability to cope with stress) through remedial programmes is essential if we are to tackle this ‘insidious issue’.

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