In this episode, we hear from Neil Shah, the Founder of International Wellbeing Insights and Chief De-Stressing Officer of The Stress Management Society. A leading international expert on stress management and wellbeing, he is the author of Amazon’s #1 best-seller ‘Turning Negatives into Positives – An introduction to Neurolinguistic Programming’ and ‘The 10-Step Stress Solution’. He is a renowned media personality on the subject of wellbeing, appearing regularly on BBC Breakfast, BBC Five Live and Sky Sunrise.
Neil provides his own perspectives on stress as well as promotes the value of Community as part of April’s Stress Awareness Month.
To access helpful resources around stress and stress awareness month please go to Stress Awareness Month 2022 – The Stress Management Society.
Transcript for Stress Management
Hello and welcome to Into Work’s Wellbeing plus Podcast.
Hi my name is Felix Slavin, Wellbeing+ Coach at Into Work. In this episode, I will be speaking with Neil Shah, Founder of International Wellbeing Insights and Chief De-stressing Officer of the Stress Management Society. Neil is a leading international expert and renowned media personality on the subject of stress management and wellbeing. Neil has kindly shared his own insights and perspectives on stress management, all while promoting April’s Stress Awareness Month. Thanks for tuning in, we hope you enjoy.
Interview with Guest
Host: Hi, Neil. Thank you for joining us on our Wellbeing Plus podcast.
Guest: Hi, Felix. Thank you so much for having me. It’s such a pleasure to be here with you.
Host: Yes, we are very grateful to have you speak with us and to raise awareness of stress management and based on your experience, stress as an area that you are very familiar with. So to start us off, can you explain how would you define stress?
Guest: Yeah. Thank you. It’s a good question. What is stress? How do we define stress? And exactly. You said I’m very familiar with it for two reasons. Number one, for professional reasons, I’ve been working in the field of stress management and mental health and wellbeing for coming up to 20 years now. But also for personal reasons. I came into this field, not off the back of academic expertise or professional experience. It was basically off the back of a first-hand experience. I came into this field off the back of a breakdown and attempted suicide, and I know what it’s like to get to the point where the stress that you’re experiencing impacts your mental health to such a point. You kind of get to a place where you don’t want to be here anymore. Now, as much as obviously it’s challenging to consider that it’s far more common than we appreciate, the main cause of death for a man around the age of 45, rapidly becoming the same for 15 to 29 year olds. It’s something that’s impacting many, many people. So what is this thing that gets many of us to the point where we really struggle with their life? Or sadly, some people actually seek out the permanent solution to a temporary problem. And for me, having had the opportunity to survey the landscape and look at how various different professionals and professional bodies define stress. I find that what was really challenging is if you speak to medical professionals, you get a particular definition based on a biological kind of medical definitions. People in the psychology community have got a psychosocial model around it. People in the health and safety community know a lot about stress, and they will have their definition. Academics doing research on the subject of stress also got their own take on it.
But actually the most profound, powerful definition of stress that I ever came across didn’t come from a doctor, a professor, or anyone that’s got any kind of expertise on stress on a human being, actually came from a structural engineer. It was a chance conversation I had on a plane on my way to New York. We had a project with the United Nations at the time, and on the plane I got sat next to a really interesting chap and we got talking. Eventually the conversation got round to what we did for a living. So I said, What do you do for a living then, my friend? And he said, I’m a stress tester. And that was fascinating. It’s like, Wow, what’s the chance of that? What’s your background – are you a doctor or a professor? and he looks at me blankly. What are you talking about, Neil? I said, What do you stress test? And he said, Structures, materials, buildings, bridges. The guy was a structural engineer. His speciality on stress and in particular managing and recognising stress was from a structural engineering perspective. But his definition of stress was so clear, so concise, so powerful. It’s what we ended up adopting as our own. And he asked me to visualise a bridge. It doesn’t matter what bridge, Tower bridge. Golden Gate Bridge, Sydney Harbour Bridge, Brooklyn Bridge, every bridge on the planet. Felix, would you agree if that particular bridge you start loading up with cars, lorries, trucks, planes, cruise ships, Boeing 747s, the International Space Station, some elephants, rhinos. Do we agree, every bridge on the planet, if enough pressure is applied for long enough, that bridge will ultimately collapse?
Host: I would imagine so.
Guest: Yes, absolutely. It has a specific weight bearing load and beyond that it will collapse. But before it collapses, we’ll know it’s not coping particularly well because there’ll be groaning, bowing, buckling, creaking, going on. Lots and lots of feedback to suggest the bridge is not bearing the load effectively. At that point, you’ve got one of two choices. Either you take some of the pressure off or you reinforced the bridge with concrete blocks and iron girders. So essentially our definition of stress is where the demand placed on an individual exceeds their resources or their capacity to cope with that demand with more. Simply put, when there’s more on your bridge than your bridge has the ability to bear.
Host: I’ve found your account of coming to a definition of stress very interesting. Well, it’s also Stress Awareness Month in April. Can you tell us about Stress Awareness Month and why this year, it’s theme is community.
Guest: Absolutely. So, Stress Awareness Month has been running for almost 30 or actually exactly 30 years. The three decade anniversary of Stress Awareness Month. And it was brought into existence to raise awareness around stress and how to manage it and more broadly, mental health issues in wellbeing issues in general. And this year is community. In the past we’ve always had themes that centre around what we can do and how we can empower ourselves and action we can take. And a lot of it was around sort of self-care and self-empowerment type strategies. When we start to realise that even though those things are important, useful and beneficial, there is a deeper underlying root cause for our stress. So rather than tackling the symptoms this year, we are actually getting straight to the core of it, which is what is the ultimate solution to the root cause. The longest longitudinal study on human experience has been running since 1938. Harvard started it and they have been doing research, I think about between 700 and 1,000 people. I think in particular it was men and looking at factors that are required for happiness, well-being, longevity. And, you know, as we’ve already established, mental health affects many, many people, one in four and actually it kills a lot of young people as well. It is one of the biggest killers on the planet.
In 2020, 50,000 people died from all the wars on the planet put together. You take into account all human violence, things like murder, etc. It comes up to 400,000 people. When you factor in the people that have actually taken their own life, that’s up to million people. So you’re more than two and a half times as likely to die as a result of your own hand as a result of all violence put together and 20 times more likely to die of war. But you turn on the news and scrolling through social media. You don’t see people talk about mental health and suicide. You see a lot of people talking, particularly currently about war and other factors like the pandemic that have affected societies over the last few years. But there’s other risks and challenges that we face aside that we are not talking about and we’re not taking anywhere near enough action on.
So going back to that study, one of the things that most fascinated me is what is the key to long life? What is the key to a happy, healthy, long life? When we started looking at this, it wasn’t just this study. We started to find data from many different parts of the world. This issue of our mental health and suicidality is quite specifically inherent in what I call WEIRD countries, WEIRD countries is not me being mean towards any particular country. It’s an acronym that stands for Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic countries. This prevalence of mental health and suicidality is specific to WEIRD countries.
There are communities and societies around the world that live a more traditional lifestyle, maybe living in the way they’ve done for many, many generations. We’re talking about communities in places like Papua New Guinea and Himalayan cultures that are still quite isolated from Western society. Cultures that live in the Amazon are still kind of living very much how they have according to generations worth of tradition and in those cultures, mental health issues don’t really exist. The actual quote was, there are low to no incidence of mental health suicidality in those cultures. And it’s like, well, that doesn’t make sense. They don’t have hospitals and schools in the ways that we do. They don’t have the medical technology, the tools to communicate, internet, etc. How is it that they are doing so much better than we are in our industrialised developed societies when it comes to mental health? Well, here’s the thing. They have something we don’t, which is a sense of community. There is a direct correlation, Felix, between the degradation of community over the last 50 or 60 years and the increase in mental health issues and suicidality, direct correlation. So if that is the case, and we’re finding that many people in modern cities and towns, whether you live in Edinburgh, Glasgow, London, Manchester, Dublin, New York, wherever, as much as there might be hundreds of thousands or millions of people living around you, there can be some of the most lonely, isolated places on the planet.
And in these geographic locations, that sense of community is largely lost. People don’t know their next door neighbours. They shop in large concrete blocks where they don’t get to really talk to an individual in a meaningful way. In fact, many of us were not having our food delivered to our home in the past. I remember growing up, my granddad used to take me to the market, go to the greengrocer, the baker, etc., etc. and you know them. They’d stop and have a chat on the way home. We’d stop at the pub and we’d know the landlord or the bar lady, and there was a sense of community. People knew each other. The structures of community are being slowly eroded. People don’t go to pubs or churches anymore. People don’t engage in the kind of community type activities that really allowed us to navigate some of the most challenging situations. If you think about in living memory, things like World War Two, we navigate that because we came together, we rallied and we saw that for a brief moment at the beginning of the pandemic where people came out of their homes to bang their pots and pans and maybe checked on their neighbours.
But, that got lost as quickly as it kind of came in. And now that’s why the theme this year is community. If we really, really want to address the issues we’ve got around mental health and suicidality rather than token gestures, like, Oh, do some meditation, do some breathing, that stuff is great as a way of helping. But if we really want to fix the problems of society that have allowed issues of mental health and suicidality to be so prevalent, we need to start rebuilding that sense of community. So that for me is kind of why this year is the most important stress awareness month, because we go back to how do we actually create a long term solution rather than blaming the individual, because it’s very easy to say, Oh, Felix is depressed, Neil’s got anxiety disorder, etc., etc. I’m blaming the individual I am now arrived at the opinion that mental health isn’t an individual issue. It’s not the person that’s broken but instead it is the society or the community that’s broken. This allowed that issue to exist. So rather than dealing with the symptoms, let’s get back to the root cause and address it by rebuilding that sense of community that underpins any successful human society.
Host: Your points on community there really resonate with me and even in the dialogue I have with clients, with friends, family just always found community has in some way been lost. So it’s been very interesting to hear about your thoughts around that.
Guest: So just to add to that, Felix community could be your workplace and the people you work with. And particularly as people have been working from home, we’ve lost that sense of community. They actually call this period the great resignation because people don’t feel connected to their workplace community in the way they would have in the past with those watercooler coffee machine moments and that kind of thing. Community could be your football team. It could be your religious faith. It could be any number of things that bring us together to commune. And that’s the thing that is really frightening. The rise of anti-social media has actually been one of the big nails in the coffin to our communities, but also to our welfare and our wellbeing. And then they call it social media, but that probably needs to be looked into by our advertising standards agency because there’s nothing social about social media. It’s probably the most antisocial thing that we have created as a species. We require human connection. Social media doesn’t provide that.
Host: And so, Neal, from your perspective, what key messages are important to share about stress management?
Guest: Thank you, Felix. What’s the key message for this moment? It’s not about, as I said, do some meditation and get a good night’s sleep and all that kind of stuff. That stuff is great and it obviously does help. Key messages. We need to stop waiting for someone to fix it. There is no saviour coming to save the day. There is no super hero with a cape. In fact, I tell a lie there is a superhero. If you go to a mirror and look in the mirror, you’ll see the superhero, the saviour you’ve been looking for. Every single one of us has a responsibility to make and create the societies and communities we want to be a part of. Community is not done to you and it’s not done for you. You are the change that you need to see in the world as exactly as Mahatma Gandhi said, be the change you want to see in the world. So how are you going to show up to reinforce and reinvigorate this sense of community? How are you going to take that time out to reach out to a friend, a colleague or family member to make time for that cup of tea or the coffee or to get people together in a meaningful way. And here’s the thing. Not just people you resonate with in life. What about being able to reach out to people that maybe see the world differently too. One of the other things that I’ve seen increased significantly is the levels of polarity and profundity we’re seeing on the planet.
This is the time for unity and community, and that is how we save our humanity. And really, regardless of what your perspective of say mask, no mask. Vaccine. No vaccine. Pandemic. Plandemic, Republican. Democrat, Brexit. The list goes on. So many reasons for us to be polarised and to hate each other. It’s actually easier to find reasons to love and connect than it is to find reasons to hate because we have superficial differences. But there is far more we have in common. Regardless of what foods you eat and what God you pray to and what team you support. These are superficial differences. Underneath that, we all have those common threads of humanity that drive us forward every day. So my advice for every single person listening today is what are you going to do to show a better example of humanity, to be able to show love, compassion and empathy? It’s not someone else’s job to do this. We all have our responsibility and how you are contributing to create the world that you want to be a part of rather than waiting for it to happen. Because the longer we wait, the less likely it is to happen. What does community mean to you and how are you going to take responsibility to be a leader within your community? When I say a leader, it doesn’t need to be an elected official or someone in a position of responsibility power.
If you look up the word power in the dictionary when applied to a human being, it quite literally means the ability to do or act. Now, power is not something that’s given to you. It’s us finding the ability to do Right? So here’s my [not a suggestion]. Here’s my heartfelt request from everyone listening today. What are you going to do to empower yourself today, in this moment, to contribute to creating a better world? So empower literally means finding the ability to do right. It’s always something we can do. Every single one of us has the ability to be able to affect positive change and to find our own innate power. And we have spent a lot of time, particularly the last couple of years, being reminded of how little power we have to affect change because it’s how what to do, who to do it or when to do it, what’s even there whilst you’re doing it. So right now we need to stop not doing what’s politically correct, but following what’s morally correct. Political correctness changes, moral correctness doesn’t. Being a good human being stands the test of time. So this is really one of the things I’m going to encourage every single one of us to do. Let’s start creating the societies and communities that we want to be a part of and ensure there isn’t the time or the space for the challenges that currently are affecting and afflicting so many people.
Host: So now just to focus a wee bit on the subject of employment, I’d be interested to hear your thoughts around employment and stress management. So where does stress fit into our journey of employment?
Guest: We view stress as a real negative thing. We have demonised stress in modern society, but stress isn’t necessarily a good or a bad thing. When people talk about good stress and bad stress, I find that extremely misleading. Stress is what it is. It’s a response given to us by nature as a survival mechanism. And there are times in situations where stress is going to be useful, productive, constructive, and will help you to navigate a situation. If you’re running for a bus or a train, you’re being chased around the park by a rabid dog. There’s someone veering into your lane as you’re driving on the motorway. You need to react very quickly to deal with it in any kind of situation where a reaction is required or a short term intervention to do what’s necessary to save your skin or to escape from danger. Stress is perfectly appropriate and valid. The challenge isn’t that we get stressed. The challenge is most of us in modern society are getting stressed in situations where it serves no constructive purpose, like you being sat at your desk in front of your computer where that desk is at home or in a physical workplace, and you’re overloaded with work, you’ve got pressures and deadlines, and you get to the point where you’ve got the stress hormones raging through your system, like adrenaline and cortisol. But there is no outlet for it because there’s nothing to fight and nothing to run away from. You might want to smash the computer to bits and punch a colleague in the face and run away, but it’s probably not the most appropriate response.
So the challenge is in the modern workplace, many of us are experiencing stress, but it serves no purpose, it has no outlet, and then it starts to have a hugely degrading effect on our overall wellbeing. So this is where it’s really important that we understand that, yes, certain degree of stress and pressure is good because it will motivate you or drive you forward. It will give you focus when it gets too much. That’s when it starts to have a real challenge. So I’d ask you to consider Felix our approach to stress how we manage it is very much in line with Goldilocks and the three bears. So Goldilocks is strolling through the jungle, stumbles upon the little cottage. The bears are not in because it’s a Saturday afternoon, they’re at the football and she finds three bowls of porridge on the table, wants two hot ones, two cold, and one’s just right. If the stress is too hot, too much stress. That’s why you get to a point where you’re exhausted. You start to shut down. You become like a rabbit in the headlights. You’re more likely to get ill. You’re exhausted because it creates a huge amount of energy to retain yourself in that state of stress. But the other end of the spectrum if the stress porridge is too cold, you’re bored, sluggish, apathetic, indifferent, you’re not likely to get anything done.
And then there’s the sweet spot where the porridge is just right. We call that the performance zone. So burnout is the state where the stress is too much, rust out when there isn’t enough stress. And the people that work in certain industries like hospitality or people that were furloughed over the last couple of years, will understand what that is like. And it’s a very uncomfortable place to be. Self-esteem, self-confidence is not to get bitter, cynical, apathetic, but when it’s just right, still stress, but it’s being channelled. You’re in flow, peak flow in the zone, on fire. We’re working together well. Some of the parts are great. The whole coming together as a team and working collaboratively. You’re enjoying what you’re doing, high levels of productivity. You’re able to think laterally, problem solve, think creatively, find solutions to the challenges we are facing. And generally, as much as it doesn’t feel like hard work, we get some of our best quality productivity when we’re in that sweet spot, which is what we call the performance zone. So in terms of employment, if we start to understand this as employers and in the modern workplace, really this is about helping people to find their performance zone and ensuring that we don’t let the stress get too much, but equally we don’t let it idle for too long because that’s where the engine will stall.
So when we’ve understood that, we can really start looking at how we manage stress in the modern working environment, not as a pink fluffy. Oh yes, let’s do some yoga and some meditation, and all of these things are great. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not knocking these things. I practice yoga, I meditate. Like all of these things that we talk about are wonderful. But what tends to happen in the modern workplace, they end up being a tick box exercise. So yes, we did some yoga and meditation in 2020. We’re fine. Well, no. What are you doing to ensure you are keeping yourself, your team, your division, your region, your unit, your entire company in that performance zone? And we’ve seen far too many organisations over the last few years that have been victims where they’ve allowed the stress and pressure to get too much. And those organisations aren’t here anymore. I can tell how successful an organisation is likely to be in coming months and years based on how they value their workforce. And there are ones that are really poor examples on how to look after your people and you can see that there’s a problem waiting to happen. Whereby people are being pushed to the edge of burnout. Now, as I mentioned already, they’re calling this period the great resignation because people got to the point where if work is stressful and I don’t feel that level of engagement or connection with my employer and my work colleagues, why would I even stay there? Felix, what’s unique is this has never happened in an economic downturn.
If we look at historical economic downturns like 2008. People held onto their jobs for dear life. Right now, there is more uncertainty around what the future holds than ever before. We just come off the end of the pandemic, hyperinflation and potential World War Three in Eastern Europe. There’s all kinds of things going on, yet people are still willing to leave their jobs. Why? Because it got to the point where, you know what, it doesn’t really matter anymore. It’s not like in the past where your job was, what you rested all your hopes for the future. And it’s kind of people got to a point where they feel so disillusioned and so disconnected. If you don’t look after your people, they will vote with their feet and they will leave. So one of the most important things that we can do is show our people we care about them, we value them because that doesn’t just ensure they’re happy and healthy. It also ensures we have high levels of performance, high levels of productivity, quality of work. And also our ability to retain, attract the best people significantly increases when we value our people. So it’s not about stress management. Let’s tick a box. Let’s say we did some nice things. This is about how do we ensure we are successful as an organisation.
Host: Neil, As well we work closely with disabled people, people with long term health conditions and neurodiverse people. Addressing mental health and stress are quite common features for people in work or looking for work. So I wonder if you can share an occasion where you have supported someone with a barrier and how they had overcome this.
Guest: There are many different things that will result in people being differently abled, whether that’s something you can see with a physical disability, whether it’s mental, emotional diversity, neurodiversity, health conditions, all manner of different things. We have programs around what we call DIE, which is diversity, inclusivity and equality, stroke equity. But there’s something that’s missing there for me. It’s something that we’ve added as a new addition to our program on DIE, and there’s a B at the end of it now, and that B stands for belonging. It comes back to that sense of community, as we’ve discussed already. It shouldn’t matter what you look like or what food you eat, how you show up. What you’re able to do and what you’re not able to do. What God you praise. All of these things are irrelevant. We’re all basically part of the human family. And when we’re able to create that sense of belonging, how you’re differently abled, what your gender, sexuality, all of these things become largely irrelevant because there’s a place for us all. Now, one of the things I’ve seen is we’ve potentially, in some respects, gone too far where issues around equality and inclusivity, where it’s got to the point where people are actually scared to have open conversation for fear of saying the wrong thing. Now, that sense of belonging is rather than focusing on the difference. Let’s focus on what we have in common. As we said already. I’ve seen a few people basically introducing themselves as an anti-racist. Okay, that’s interesting. What does that say to me? Part of the problem, right? I’m not an anti-racist, but I’m not a racist.
Just consider myself to be a good human being. So, again, with regards to some of the things that we are discussing, whether it’s physical, disability, neurodiversity, etc., going too far in a direction which creates kind of more of a toxic environment is like how can we get to the point where we look at people on face value rather than, I now see you as a disabled person, I now see you as a woman, I now see you as transgender, homosexual, whatever. What about if you could just connect with the person at a human level and look at the information that’s being presented to you? And you know what? You could have someone that is in a wheelchair and you might find you’ve got loads in common with them and you get on really well with them equally. You could find someone that is diverse or is different to you, and you find them annoying as hell. But if they’re annoying as hell because they’re just annoying human being that you’re treating that person as you would anyone else. Does that make sense? And I find that what really troubles me is when you go too far to make exceptions and allowances, we now get into a point where we’ve gone to a point we’ve actually created more polarity. The idea of creating that sense of shared humanity, of commonality is we look for what is similar about us, then we look for what is different. So that’s where some of the conversations we’re having on this subject for me veering to what I would describe as toxic liberalism, where it’s actually creating more problems than it’s resolving.
Because now people are it’s not that they’re not saying the right things. It’s just they’re not saying anything because they’re absolutely petrified of getting it wrong. So what happens to that? Those thoughts, feelings, emotions, those conversations. They go underground. They get hidden from plain sight. It doesn’t mean people have changed their thoughts, feelings, perspective. It’s just that they don’t share them publicly for fear of repercussions. What I’m more interested in, again, is not like surface level stuff is stopping people saying the wrong thing and this is what the cancel culture has done. You can’t say that because X, Y, Z. What I’m here to say is I would much prefer people say, actually open up and be honest and we can work together to find that sense of community because community isn’t where we all agree with the same thing, believe the same thing, eat the same food, worship the same God, support the same football team, actually are well functioning communities. We do think differently, but we still come together with that shared sense of common belief and the common wellbeing. And that’s really where, as I said, like, it doesn’t matter who you are, what our differences are, we all have a place. And when we can get to that point and we stop talking about the differences and we actually spend more time talking about the similarities and the commonalities is when we’ve started to achieve success. Very simply, let’s start looking for the similarities rather than looking for the differences.
Host: Neil, thank you for your time, your insights and for sharing a lot of your experience. It’s been an absolute pleasure having you on to the Wellbeing podcast.
Guest: Listen, you’re absolutely welcome. We’ve put together a ton of free resources to support Stress Awareness Month. If you would like more information or access to some of these free resources, you can find them at www.stress.org.uk
Host: Lovely. Take care, Neil.
Guest: Thanks a lot, Felix. Lovely talking to you.
Host: You too.
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