Tuesday Morning Focal Point

Acute Stress & Workplace Relationships

Where is the acute stress coming from?

What a year 2020 has been – one that will be remembered forever.  COVID-19 has had such a major impact on many elements of business.  Leaders have been stretched and challenged in ways they could not have predicted, with pressures and acute stress unlike they’ve ever experienced before.

As I think about the last several months, overall it has been a very rewarding time to be in the role of coach.  I have had the honour of coming alongside dozens and dozens of leaders and leadership teams to support them.  I have been thrilled with the resilience I have witnessed.  I’ve been thoroughly impressed in many instances by the way leadership teams have held space for strategic thinking regarding how to pivot their businesses.  It is incredible what humans can accomplish when under pressure and facing crisis and even fighting for business survival.

In the last two to three weeks, I’ve really started to notice what I think is an acute stress response for many.  A couple of weeks ago I received an email from an Executive Director who I worked with over a two-year period.  It has been almost two years since we have spoken.  She reached out with a request for an urgent coaching call, and signalled to me she and one of the senior leaders in her organization would likely be asking to re-engage my services for a season.  Yesterday, we connected for a little over an hour by phone.

Impact of acute stress in the workplace huamns accomplish under pressure

This former client reached out because things have gone south and fast, in a critical relationship with a member of her executive team.  They have lost their alignment, been misunderstanding each other and withdrawing from each other.  She is well aware that both of them are not coping their best and leading from their best selves.  She was somewhat comforted when I normalized for her that I have seen a significant increase in key workplace relationships breaking down recently.  I believe that people are no longer operating on the adrenaline that they were when the pandemic hit, and their resilience reserves in many cases are simply tapped out.

We reviewed together during our call, the Core Values that this leadership team agreed to several years ago.  When I last worked with them, I did both individual coaching, team coaching with their leadership team and strategy development, so I had a lot to go back and draw on.  We also reviewed rhythms.  This particular relationship between these two leaders is one I had done quite a bit of joint coaching with.  I recalled that the two of these senior leaders had agreed to a relationship theme of “I’ve got your back.”  Alas, through our conversation I learned they have not been living this out fully.  Indeed, things were great during the early part of the pandemic, as they performed well during the initial crisis.  However, things have deteriorated.


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Acute stress responses

Looking back over my coaching roster and schedule from the last month or so, I see lots of coaching sessions where the topic related directly to strained relationships and disconnection.  It is very much a current theme.  At the current stage of the pandemic, many individuals are tired and are having an acute stress response.  This is in many cases characterized by things like

  • impatience
  • low tolerance for error
  • forgetfulness
  • greater anxiety and worry
  • trouble sleeping
  • emotional reactivity
    • (sometimes with anger and blame)

This is a good time for you to do a check in on your resiliency reserve and assess where you are at in your mental and emotional health and wellness.

Cameron’s Call to Action

  1. Ask yourself, “how am I doing…really, how am I doing”? and be willing to admit to yourself if you are not at your best.
  2. If in doubt, listen to those around you. Often friends and family notices changes in us that we don’t notice.
  3. Pause and consider your most important relationships at work and at home. Do any of these need a pause and a reset?  If so, start with an honest conversation.
  4. Practice self-care. Have you done something good for yourself recently?  It can be something simple.  Just be sure to do it.
  5. Refocus your time and energy on the 4 to 5 most important priorities and accountabilities you have. Leave everything else for a while.

Update: We published a follow-up article on resilience – Strategies for Building Resilience

Cameron is an Executive Coach and Consultant specializing in business growth and creating psychologically healthy workplaces.