Derek Roger on “Work Without Stress”: Part 2 of an interview by Bob Morris

Derek Roger qualified originally in psychology, and is a British Psychological Society Chartered Psychologist. The emphasis in his work subsequently shifted to neuroscience, and his ground-breaking research, mainly at the University of York in England and later at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, has made him one of the world’s leading experts on stress and resilience. His research unit at York attracted numerous international visiting researchers, and the findings from his work have been published in over 120 books, keynote conference presentations and peer-reviewed papers. Derek has held visiting professorships in Europe and was adjunct professor at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand from 2003, before returning to the UK in 2015.

Drawing on the research, Derek developed the innovative Challenge of Change Resilience Training program. Marketed through the Work Skills Centre Ltd., the training is implemented by accredited Training Associates in major organizations across the UK, NZ and the USA, where it forms part of custom programs delivered by the Center for Creative Leadership.

In addition to the experimental findings, a number of case studies have been conducted demonstrating the efficacy of the training, and these can be viewed on the website by clicking here.

His and Nick Petrie’s book, Work without Stress: Building a Resilient Mindset for Lasting Success, was published by McGraw-Hill Education (November 2016).

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Now please shift your attention to Work Without Stress. For those who have not as yet read it, hopefully your responses to these questions will stimulate their interest and, better yet, encourage them to purchase a copy and read the book ASAP.

First, when and why did you decided to write it and do so in collaboration?

I’ve been publishing both research findings and descriptions of the training for many years, and there was an earlier book about it, written a couple of decades ago and out of print for some time. A new one was needed, but not just another edition of the same – Work Without Stress has retained the well-established basic principles, but I’ve learned so much in the process of developing the program that the new book has completely transcended many of the early ideas. Most of my training work has been company-wide, but it became more and more obvious that both the implications and the implementation of resilience differ depending on your role in the organization. On first meeting Nick many years ago, he had an immediate grasp of the innovative approach I was taking, and working at the Center for Creative Leadership meant that he was able to bring a missing leadership perspective to it. He was the obvious choice to collaborate on the book!

Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain.

The ease with which we were able to work together was not so much head-snapping as a nice confirmation of expectations.

To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ significantly from what you originally envisioned?

Not a lot – we were very ably helped and advised by the editorial team at McGraw-Hill, and it was more a case of moving things around in response to their suggestions than wholesale slaughter.

What are the most significant differences differences between pressure and stress?

This is the key to the book! Pressure is a demand to perform, and is a constant in life. We use the example of this morning when you woke up: pressure is immediately there, and the demand is simply to get up. If you’ve overslept and are late, pressure has increased, but there’s no stress inherent in it. You’re further delayed by slow traffic: more pressure, but all of it only becomes stress if you add in the negative what-ifs and if-onlys that constitute rumination. And ruminative thoughts tend to escalate out of control, completely obliterating detachment: ‘I’m going to lose my job for this; I’ll never work again and we’ll be in the poorhouse; my wife will blame me, my kids will never talk to me again; I hate my boss, I’ll find a way of getting him; the world’s unfair, I might as well jump off a cliff!’

Stress is ruminating about emotional upset, and while pressure can be highly motivating, stress is paralyzing and damaging to health, happiness and productivity. Pressure can get you there. Stress gets you nowhere; properly defined it is never useful and could never be your friend.

You offer this equation: Pressure + rumination = stress, and then suggest that “rumination and how to avoid it form a cornerstone of our approach to stress.” Why avoid rumination? You suggest a four-step process. Please explain what each step involves. First, Waking up

The difficulty is the ingrained psychobabble misconception that stress is good for you. To illustrate with a simple practical example: a piece of work arrives, and you think, ‘oh no, not that again’. Rather than dealing with it, you drift off into thinking about what you’re doing at the weekend. You’ve gone to sleep, and what we mean by that is explained by the continuum of sleep. Being awake/asleep isn’t a two-state phenomenon: every night everyone has periods of deep sleep, and less deep periods during which we dream. We then wake up and go off to work, but when you do drift off into next weekend, it is plainly something you’re dreaming about which may or may not happen. You’re less deeply asleep than when you’re dreaming at night, but it is nonetheless just dreaming. Someone knocks on your office door, and you’re connected again with the present by the sense of hearing: you’ve woken up, attention is available for you to control and give to whoever comes in.

Some important qualifiers: you might say that what you were actually doing was planning what you were going to do about the proposal in the piece of work, but that’s what we call reflection – the intentional giving of attention to the past or the future, maintaining the present as the frame of reference. To some extent there is likely to still be an element of waking sleep present: you have a concept or idea about who or what this person is, so you’re relating to an idea in your mind, but that’s the nature of conditioning, and you can remain awake while that process of recognition takes place. After all, we have to be able to recognize people and things if we’re to function at all.

Finally, you might say that you quickly drift back into waking sleep afterwards, but once awake you have the opportunity to break that habit by staying awake as long as you’re able to; with practice, you’ll find you wake up more frequently and are able to stay awake for longer and longer. The aim isn’t to be awake all the time (impossible) but to be as awake as you can be for as long as possible. Everyone daydreams, but that’s not stress. Our book is about stress, which corresponds to having a nightmare. When you ruminate, you’re creating a nightmare (“daymare” perhaps!), and just like a nightmare at night, the opportunity to put it back into perspective comes with waking up from it.

Controlling attention

In waking sleep and rumination, attention is captured and scattered amongst idle dreams or nightmare negative thoughts. Once you wake up, that attention is freed and becomes available for you to control and direct. You can give attention internally or externally: to the person who walks into the room, or to working out a solution to a problem in your mind. It can become absorbed in something, to the exclusion of everything around you, but this is not a form of sleep since you’re intentionally deploying your attention rather than having it snatched away.

It can vary in focus, from being concentrated on a single point or opened up to take in everything in your visual field. In the process you’ll be making sense of what you see via conditioning: recognizing from past experience what bird’s making that sound, for example, or recalling what happened when you took a particular action during the last restructure, but as we’ve said, conditioning isn’t a problem unless it provides the bait for capturing attention and drawing it into rumination. While attention is controlled and used to make sense of the world, that’s what we call reflection. Nothing happens without attention being given to it, but it can be used for useful decision-making or to feed rumination.

Becoming detached

Detachment is often misunderstood as being disengaged or uncaring, but what we mean by it in this context is being able to step back and regain perspective. The opposite of detachment is emotional catastrophizing, turning molehills into mountains. In the program, we use the metaphor of a house with a flood out one side. If you open the door it will overwhelm you, so you need to keep the doors at opposite ends of the house open and step up into the loft so you can let it all flow through below you. This isn’t avoidance – you’re not blocking it out, but rather being able to see and evaluate it from a perspective above it. You can’t reflect without being detached.

Letting go

The four steps represent a sequence: nothing will happen until you wake up, but once you do, attention becomes available and there is the opportunity to regain perspective. The final step is to let go, illustrated in the program by the monkey reaching into a pot to grab a peanut. The monkey’s fist is too big to get back out the hole, so it’s trapped; all it needed to do to be free was to let go, but it surrenders everything for the sake of a peanut.

The important bit is what you let go of: this isn’t an invitation to do nothing! Issues arrive wrapped in emotion, and the key is to let go of the negative emotion that will turn into rumination if you hold onto it. Letting go of the wrapping leaves the issue, which you are then able to deal with: awake, controlling attention, and keeping perspective. We illustrate it with Star Wars: Luke Skywalker is the last pilot with a bomb to drop on the Death Star and is in danger of lapsing into rumination (‘what if I miss? If only there were more bombs!), the voice of Obi-Wan tells him explicitly to let go.

Which of these steps seems to be most difficult to complete? Why?

Probably letting go, in part because we use the emotion to justify our actions, but also because what we let go of tends to sneak round and come back into our minds again – rumination tends to be a repetitious process. There is no magic bullet (there seldom is), what’s needed is diligent practice until the four steps become habitual second nature.

What are the defining characteristics of a resilient personality?

The question begs another: what is ‘personality’? The word has an unwarranted presumption attributed to it, to the point of naming the current incarnation the ‘Big’ Five. The number of personality dimensions you claim is simply a function of the level of extraction you choose for the structural equation model you generate – the number has expanded and contracted over the years like an accordion, from 16 to 2 to 5. A far simpler principle if to describe personality as individual differences in attitudes and behavior that are distributed across random samples, so we regard all eight of the Profile scales as personality measures. Personality is conventionally regarded as hard-wired and unchanging because it is relatively constant and predictable, but that could be a consequence of either biogenetic predispositions or consistent reinforcement.

Although we acknowledge that DNA is involved to some degree in most of our behavior, the predictability of the Profile measures is accounted for primarily by entrenched habit, nurture rather than nature – they are all relatively stable habits (assessed by re-test reliability), our case studies and our experience of the effects of the training confirm that with practice, these habits can be changed.

So, to answer the question, a resilient personality is one characterized by the tendency to ruminate very little; to be able to express feeling appropriately; to not engage in angry, toxic responses; to know how to prioritize and not push things aside in the hope that they’ll just sort themselves out; to control what is controllable but not to try to control what isn’t; to understand the threshold of added value, so that time spent on anything is only what’s warranted; to be able to maintain a detached perspective in the face of increasing pressure; to be able to pick up quickly and accurately on how others are feeling; and to respond to change by adapting to new circumstances but without just provoking change for the sake of it.

One additional point: of the many personality measures, the most compelling evidence for a relatively strong biogenetic genetic influence is the extraversion-introversion dimension, but our research has shown that it isn’t implicated in resilience, and in the book it is described only briefly in the Appendix.

What specifically can supervisors do to help their direct reports to avoid rumination?

Nick makes several specific recommendations, so I’ll leave that one to him.

What is “resilient communication” and how can it be uniquely beneficial?

One of the most common complaints in organizations where there’s low engagement is that communication is poor. One of the key things that compromises communication is people being asleep, so a first step is to be as awake as possible for as much of the time as possible: are you attending to what the person talking to you is saying, or are you formulating your brilliant reply/thinking about the much more important things you could be doing/thinking about next weekend? Following from that, the next step is to develop a detached but compassionate way of responding – in other words, to be sensitive to how someone is feeling about a job change, but to not take on or identify with the emotion. A good model is being a doctor: your patient will understandably be upset to discover they’re seriously ill, and you need to be able to understand that, but to be able to help you also need to remember that it isn’t you that’s ill. This is empathy. Identifying with another person’s emotional state is sympathy, and it helps no one.

What is the HPA Axis and why is it uniquely beneficial?

HPA is shorthand (thankfully!) for the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal system. The hypothalamus is a section of brain tissue found next to the pituitary gland at the base of the brain, and we have two adrenal glands, situated above each kidney in the small of our backs. The hypothalamus and pituitary act in concert to regulate the secretion of adrenaline from the inner part (the medulla) of the adrenal glands, and cortisol from the outer part (the cortex). Adrenaline and cortisol have mistakenly been described as ‘stress hormones’, when in fact they are hormones doing exactly what they’re designed to do: facilitate the familiar fight-or-flight response, which is entirely adaptive.

Among other things, adrenaline increases heart rate and blood pressure, which ensures rapid delivery of oxygen to the muscles; the physiological changes you feel when you’re suddenly startled are largely the effects of increased adrenaline (there’s always adrenaline in the system, but it increases dramatically in fight-or-flight). Cortisol has anti-inflammatory effects, controlling inflammation that might result from any injury, and it also regulates energy, increasing it by releasing stored glycogen and conserving it by temporarily suspending energy-expensive processes, including the production of certain lymphocytes. All of these changes are regulated in turn by the principle of homeostasis: once the need for fight-or-flight has receded, your body will naturally return as quickly as possible to a resting level (excess adrenaline, for example, is quickly metabolized).

The problem occurs when it doesn’t: sustained elevations of cardiovascular function will lead to damage, in the same way that running an engine flat out will do, and prolonged suspension of lymphocyte action will compromise immune function. Activation of HPA can be a result of genuinely constant, unremitting demand, but that would be very unusual – a close approximation is people caring for a relative who needs constant monitoring, such as dementia. There is hardly any let-up, and carers of family members with dementia do indeed have compromised immune function (nice experiment, which I regret I didn’t do, used length of time to healing of punch-biopsy wounds in carers as compared to controls; the former took significantly longer).

However, there doesn’t need to be an external demand to sustain fight-or-flight. If you close your eyes and conjure up in your mind as vividly as possible a situation where you were extremely embarrassed, frightened, angry, etc., you heart-rate and blood pressure will rise in response to the thoughts – body and mind are inextricably linked. Hence the focus on rumination: ruminating about emotional upset prolongs physiological arousal when it isn’t required. All you’re fighting or fleeing from is a thought in your head, and in the process making yourself miserable and potentially compromising your health.

When can internal or external pressure be beneficial?

In principle, pressure is always beneficial – it’s what motivates us. Quite difficult to distinguish between internal and external components, since they co-occur: using the simple example of the alarm going off in the morning and needing to get up, the awareness of the external signal (time ticking by) and the knowledge that if I lie here any longer I’m going to be late will together form the pressure.

Constant pressure which is unremitting would clearly be a problem, as with the careers mentioned in the previous answer, but (i) these are rare circumstances, (ii) exhaustion and sleep would probably bring it to an end eventually, and (iii) with the carers it would be hard to distinguish between the actual physical demand and the tendency to ruminate (degrees of rumination were not taken into account).

A useful way to bring all this together is to introduce the distinction between chronic and acute stress. The weight of evidence shows that it is the former that has the deleterious effects, and what we’re suggesting is another change in the use of the language around stress: we’ve already distinguished between pressure and stress rather than ‘good vs. bad’ stress, and in addition we’re saying that ‘acute stress’ isn’t stress at all, just pressure, and the word ‘stress’ should only be used in the context of chronic demand.

“Acute” is intended to convey something that might be intense but is short-lived, and will hence automatically allow periods of recovery. Chronic stress continues: you hate your boss, but have to go to work to earn a living. In fact, even in this example there is the opportunity for recovery, since you’re only actually at work for part of the time; again, what turns this into stress is continuing to churn and brood on how angry your boss makes you, even when at home supposedly relaxing, and dreaming up scenarios in which you exact revenge!

When (if ever) can rumination be beneficial?

Never. Interestingly, the dictionary definition of rumination includes both negative and positive aspects, but in common use it usually implies negative churning. In CoC it is explicitly constrained to ruminating about emotional upsets. In contrast, thinking through a difficult problem from a detached perspective – in other words, reflection – doesn’t incur any of the costs involved in rumination.

To what extent can perfectionism be beneficial?

Up to the threshold of added value. Prior to that point, wanting to do the job to the very best of your abilities and within the constraints of time and money is entirely appropriate, but continuing to worry and tweak while adding no further value is pointless and very costly to yourself and the organization.

In Song of Myself, Walt Whitman observes,

“Do I contradict myself?
Very well, then, I contradict my self.
I am large,
I contain multitudes.”

Your response?

Thank you for this question – now I know the source of the title of an excellent recent book by a parasitologist! The “multitudes” in the book are the millions of bacteria etc. that we play host to. Back to the question posed by the quote: What comes to mind is that when trying to change ourselves, or expecting change in others, we have to be extremely tolerant.

As we’ve said in the book, it isn’t any good being a stress-ball and telling everyone else to not be stressed, but even with lots of practice and the best will in the world we sometimes lose it. People are complex, physically and cognitively, though while the physiological system behaves entirely rationally if it isn’t interfered with, what goes on in our minds is another matter. Mindfulness comes in here. Though I think you’re aware of my reservations about the way the word has been hijacked by psychobabblers, the more aware you are of the connection between what you think, say and do, and the more you can keep them aligned, the fewer contradictions there are likely to be.

In your opinion, which of the material you provide in Work Without Stress will be most valuable to those now preparing for a business career or who have only recently embarked on one? Please explain.

It would be hard to isolate any one feature, and a number of the companies we work with use the training program as part of induction for new recruits. For me, I think the four steps are the most important, since they prepare you by providing the essential resilience skills for what will inevitably be a very steep learning curve.

To first-time supervisors? Please explain.

Here the Profile, showing your strengths and weaknesses and what might need to change, becomes equally important, as does the application of CoC specifically to leaders.

Which question had you hoped to be asked during this interview – but weren’t – and what is your response to it?

“Is it realistic to expect people to change what is effectively their ‘personality’?” Our perspective on personality, as mentioned earlier, is that it describes any habitual attitudes and behaviors that are predictable either because of reinforced conditioning or biogenetic effects. This allows the inclusion of all of the Profile scales as dimensions of personality, and they are primarily attributable to nurture rather than nature – hence the evidence we have for change. However, it really is important to emphasize that change will only happen as a function of effort.

Participants in sessions who come with the ‘here I am, train me’ attitude tend to think that change will just happen because they’ve read the book or attended a session, and are disappointed when nothing happens! Learning about the very different approach we’re offering is just a starting point: what we’ve described in the book is what needs to change and how to change it if you want to become more resilient, but you have to do it.

How long it might take to effect change will depend on where you start from. The simple and clear directions we’re offering mean that people can generally make dramatic changes quite quickly, but really changing habitual behavior, like anything worthwhile, takes dedicated practice.

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Here is a direct link to Part 1.

Derek invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

Challenge of Change link

His blog link

Work Without Stress’s Amazon link

Center for Creative Leadership link

Link to “Wake Up! The Surprising Truth about What Drives Stress and How Leaders Build Resilience” white paper pdf

Link to three film clips from Bridge of Spies

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