How the Stress-Strain Curve could help us manage mental health at work

More and more companies claim to be committed to mental health at work — yet most of their initiatives are not targeted, and the field of mental health is immense and still poorly understood — even among experts and therapists.

This leaves managers with little guidance and more burden. They are expected to function as mental health coaches — essentially becoming untrained therapists.

Below we propose an approach to focus on stress instead and use the stress train curve from engineering as inspiration.

How stress matters to mental health

The American Institute of Stress reports that nearly 85% of American workers suffer from work-related stress. Stress is a physical, emotional, and behavioral response to adverse circumstances. Poorly managed stress can cause sleep issues. It is the main trigger for more serious but common mental health conditions like depression, anxiety, and substance abuse. Research also shows that chronic stress not only affects our attention span, but can also damage the brain and impact memory.

Stress is a central part of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) definition of mental health: “A state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.”

None of today’s stresses are “normal.” Two years into the pandemic, many of us are coping at work, operating at 50% to 70% of our capacity. As a result, we are seeing a lot more reports of burnout. It has entered the vernacular.

What is burnout?

To the WHO, burnout results “from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” Its presentations are varied — it could occur as increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; and, reduced professional efficacy. It usually starts with overworking — and a sense that the team’s or family’s performance rests on our shoulders (see Exhibit with eight stages of burnout). Burnout, however, is not always a function of long hours — it is a function of how work is perceived, and that had a lot to do with the manager, according to Gallup.

Burnout is a major source of involuntary turnover: employees who experience frequent burnout are at 2.6x risk of leaving. Turnover in a 100-person organization with an average salary of $50,000 could cost $600,000 to $2.6 million, in what Gallup called a “fixable problem.”

It is always important to remember that what is stressful for one person is not for the other. What is stressful for us at one point in time might not be stressful at another, depending on what else we have going on. Finally, stress can be good if well managed — it helps us change, evolve and perform. And managing smaller stressors gives us practice for life’s larger challenges.

Stages of Stress Testing

Below we explain how the stress-strain connection can help managers better understand how and why stress can lead to material and human failure, and what can be done at various inflection points to change outcomes.

Engineers and materials scientists use the stress-strain curve to determine how a metal performs and deforms under force. These curves reveal the properties of metals under specific conditions.

The curve show the various stages of a sample stress strain curve — proportional limit, elastic limit, yield stress point, lower yield stress point, ultimate stress point and break or rupture.
From https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stress%E2%80%93strain_curve#/media/File:Stress_strain_ductile.svg, accessed April 2022

In the first stage, the stress and strain are moving together. The system is working and the individual is able to evolve with the pressure. The system is resilient and there is an increasing return on any additional pressure.

Around Point A, the material or individual starts to show some strain and the rate of marginal return on additional pressure might slow. They are less “elastic.” The employee might not be able to respond as rapidly to changes in specifications for a project or make deadlines as fast as before.

Point B indicates the start of a downward tilt that will soon come to Point C –the system is decompensating and there is a diminishing rate of return. In a way, more pressure reduces the system’s ability to do what it is designed. It has reached maximum tensile strength. Employee productivity decreases.

At this juncture, if the pressure continues unabated then we get to Point D and Point E, which is catastrophic failure in engineering. At work, the employee is too exhausted to execute properly anymore.

Managerial responses

Managers can think about their role at various points along the curve:

During the entire process: Managers should be aware of the microsignals the employee might be broadcasting. These can include changes in habits such as grooming and punctuality as well as compensatory mechanisms, such as elevated caffeine consumption or more time on their phones. These may start to reveal increasing strain. They should also be on the lookout for inflection points, which can include divorce, the death of a loved one, caregiving and parenting, which may change an employee’s ability to withstand pressure at a particular point in time.

Point A: Ideally this is where the manager and employee should be in conversation to adapt parameters as needed — is the pressure too intense? what would help the employee do better here if the pressure remains constant — supportive words? guidance? Most often, we blow past this stage because the individual is still performing under pressure. Managers can also explain why pressure here might be developmental and how so that we don’t pathologize stress. Coping with it is how we learn and grow.

Points B and C: More pressure does not result in more production at work, on the contrary. This should send off an * ALERT * to management and requires immediate manager attention. They can change the pressure (e.g., take a task away), or provide more support to the employee (e.g., add resources) or change the working conditions in which the employee has to perform (i.e., allowing them to finish a project at home).

Points D and E: This is * BURNOUT * — what follows can be a successful mental health leave but usually involuntary turnover and potential lawsuits if proper accommodations weren’t provided. This could have been avoided with earlier intervention.

The central managerial skill involves how much pressure to apply — and staying in communication

Too much sustained pressure might cause people to burn out. They might need to leave for a bit or forever. Some cases of burnout are fatal or impact the individual to such an extent that they might not be able to return to the same line of work. For some, cognitive skills and ability to perform are permanently damaged. There is a point of no recovery in burnout and exhaustion.

With not enough pressure, people might underperform or bore out (presenteeism, distraction, gossiping). This may be contributing to presenteeism — people in the office but not really working — or stagnation. Without pressure, no diamonds are formed.

Finally, the wrong pressure or loss of connection may lead employees to sense out. They lose their sense of purpose and might leave looking for a job that stimulates and motivates them.

In addition, managers need to create a culture that enables them to help employees to report on their “strainability” and how to improve it. Like metals, employees have different qualities. Some are like gold, very pliable. They can be stretched very, very thin, but are not strong and show big dents. Others, like aluminum, can endure stress and changes up to a point, after which they break. Copper is durable and versatile, but not very strong. (Our next post will be on employee types).

Unlike metals, humans learn and can recover. They can be trained to be more aware of their stress-strain tolerance, the role of inflection points, and tools to understand and build resilience. They can speak up and change trajectories.

Managers, of course, also move up and down the stress curve. With 68% of managers reporting to be overwhelmed in 2022, their bosses should also be reflecting on how much pressure they are putting on their organizations.

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We hope this concept will be helpful to you in your professional and also personal life. Please send ideas and feedback to the team at Human Sustainability Inside Out. We would love to hear from you.

Thank you to Doctor Kent Zocchi for the idea.

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Carin-Isabel Knoop

Carin-Isabel Knoop

Passionate about encouraging human sustainability and equal access at work. Collector and connector of people and ideas.