By Sara Fazlali, CEO of Secret Me.
Ask any psychologist and they’ll tell you that stress is one of the biggest issues professionals face today. A combination of long working hours and ever-dependence on technology has left us frazzled, dejected and jaded, posing serious questions for our long-term health.
But while we have never been more switched on and plugged in, the UK also has one of the lowest productivity levels amongst advanced economies in the world. Just last month the Office for Budget Responsibility was forced to downgrade its estimates for labour productivity growth, wiping out about two-thirds of the government’s £26bn budget surplus from 2017 to 2021.
According to the Yerkes-Dodson law, the relationship between stress and productivity is inherently related. It states that while an imbalance between the two results in one conversely affecting the other, there is also an optimum level for both to work together effectively. In other words, there is a ‘stress sweet spot’ that when found, professionals and businesses can use to their own advantage.
There are many triggers and coping mechanisms when we become aware of stress, but the question is how do individuals take ownership, rather than succumb, to these emotions? This is something I have honed by building Secret Me, a startup that uses rapid-fire coaching from former Special Forces and Intelligence Specialists to work with private clients in testing their limits, who they are, what they are capable of, and how to manage their reactions to stress and sensory overload. We use a lot of learnings from military professionals, for example, they use the concept of ‘stress inoculation’ in the same way that we administer a drug, gradually exposing individuals to small but increasing doses of stress whilst being expected to perform at peak levels. Eventually, reacting to a perceived or otherwise harmful situation is a matter of fine-drilled instinct, rather than something that is worrying or out of control.
One of the first things any Special Forces training will do is to make recruits aware of how they react to emotions. Increased heart rate, adrenaline, sweaty palms, these are not just symptoms of stress, they are also emotions associated with excitement. Most of us will react to these symptoms with fear and reservation and try to suppress them, but by gradually exposing ourselves to small doses of stress, we can help shift our perceptions, from unconformable to more comfortable, stress to satisfaction. Contextualising stress as something which can aid us rather than as being harmful is the first step in finding the ideal stress sweet spot.
But how can this skill be used effectively in business?. At Secret Me, we are taking global business leaders and entrepreneurs away to test their limits; to allow them to clinch that next big client, or negotiate difficult boardroom situations more effectively. Our training, which handles everything from self-defence and hostage negotiations, to interrogation and surveillance techniques, is designed to get clients performing at optimum levels of productivity. While the training may at first, come across as slightly daunting, this is only because individuals are handling ambiguity – most of us, will have never gone toe-to-toe with a spy or been part of a thrilling car chase á la James Bond. However once clients begin training, gradually being exposed to rising difficulty and set challenges whilst being trained by the best, they tend to find they react with clarity rather than uncertainty. Unarmed combat, another of our practises, classifies this lesson as perception vs observation. Perception is often associated with the emotion you bring into a situation, while the observing eye just sees what is really there. It is through training and balancing the two that optimum performance levels are achieved.
A final bit of advice concerns distractions. The modern world can be information overload, with mobile phones, social networks and other technological devices all trying to garner our attention. Multi-tasking is one thing, but how do we concentrate on the task in hand?
Building on the observation lessons outlined earlier, it is about learning to trust gut instinct. It may be as simple as paying attention to an individual’s eyes, their movements and/or body language as a way of understanding whether actions are hostile or not. This kind of primordial approach prioritises old fashioned self-belief, leaning on our ancestral roots and the ability to use the world around us to our advantage, rather than letting our emotions take control of us. Small observations channel resilience and forethought, allowing us to prioritise the matter at hand for swift decision making.
The wide variety of challenges posed by today’s business environment are really nothing new. I challenge everyone the next time you encounter a stressful situation, in work or in personal life, to trust your instincts. Learn to undertake that which is stressful in small, fine-tuned doses. Only then will we learn to take control and find that ideal stress sweet spot.