A Constant State of Stress

An excerpt from Change Your Space, Change Your Culture by Rex MillerMabel Casey and Mark Konchar.

One episode of the television series World’s Deadliest shows a herd of impalas grazing peacefully at night on an African savannah, but alert to potential danger. All is quiet and still. But then the camera slowly pans to reveal a stalking lion hidden in the high grass. Suddenly the closest impalas look up; their heads jerk from side to side and their tails begin swishing rapidly. Like a synchronized chorus, all of the others quickly do the same. When one suddenly bolts, they all run.

Fear is universal and trans-species. Threats trigger the release of adrenaline to provide maximum response to danger. But when adrenal glands stay open for long periods, the result is stress. Imagine: Humans don’t do their best work when they’re stressed out. Simon Sinek, best-selling author and TED presenter, makes the case that the stress of the workplace sets our adrenal system on overload. This degrades our health and has caused the rise of chronic diseases in our time.

Just as the story of the impalas and the lion reflects, when one person in an office senses a threat, his or her behavior triggers a ripple effect throughout the workspaces. That “noise in the system” comes from the tension in the atmosphere, whispered lunchroom conversations, cryptic e-mails and texts, and so forth. Noise drives managers crazy. Frantic and frustrated management denials that jobs are threatened actually have the reverse effect; they increase anxiety. The herd has a mind of its own.

American business loses a trillion dollars a year because we do not know that life is integrated. 2 Personal health, safety, marriage, family, commuting, finances, and other burdens and crises are integrally related to our ability to achieve and produce. We can gaze at a herd of impalas and clearly see that the “compartments” of their individual and collective lives harmonize. Anything that threatens their food, water, dwelling, offspring, or safety constitutes a lethal hazard to their whole existence and future.

By contrast, for decades we have been building the structures of our lives as silos, cubicles, bubbles, and other isolating pods. We’ve thus created cultures of disconnection. When we noticed the effects, we started having concerned conversations about lighting, ergonomics, buildings, budgets, and better designs. Of course, those are not the truly relevant topics and we’re therefore not having the right conversations.


2. “State of the Global Workplace 2013.” Gallup. N.p., n.d. Web. June 16, 2014. https//www.gallup.com/strategicconsulting/164735/state-global-workplace.aspx. Kirka, Danica. “Employers step in to prevent worker burnout.” Yahoo! Finance. December 2013. Web. February 11, 2014. https://finance.yahoo.com/news/employers-step-prevent-worker-burnout-074239271-finance.html.