Choosing Strengths To Manage Stress

I had occasion recently to fly back to Chicago to visit my daughter. On the flight there, I sat beside a small older woman, very slight with these beautiful blue eyes that sparkled like sapphires in the sun. Little did I know that our conversation would unlock a brilliant perspective on why choosing strengths to manage stress is a critical life lesson.

We started to talk almost as soon as we were wheels up. We began with the typical flight talk (turbulence, the stuffy air, etc…) but soon moved on to family and work. She said she retired as a textbook editor 15 years ago, and now enjoys reading for pleasure much more than she did for work. I shared a bit about how I make my living and that of my husband. She shared that she and her husband have been married 65 years, they are both 89 years old and fit as a fiddle (I love that term).

The Danish Perspective

Although you may be hungry now (I apologize), we are not talking about a pastry.  She shared that they lived in Denmark for many, many years, and actually attributes their health and well-being to that life in Denmark. “Most of our friends in the States have already passed away” she said, “the stress took a toll – but not for us, we didn’t live to work, we worked to live”.  This fascinated me and I listened attentively.

Agnes and her husband moved to Denmark toward their mid-forties. Prior to that move, they lived in New York, both Big Apple natives.

They were in for quite a surprise when they moved to Denmark. The first big shock? The work day. The work day was pretty short. Agnes remarked that both she and her husband felt a bit like slackers for a few years until they got used to it. Although that took awhile, the vacation time was pretty easy for Agnes to live with – her job gave seven weeks paid vacation a year and his job gave six weeks. Her favorite perk to working in Denmark was the concept of teleworking – at the time, this was pretty unheard of in the States, but in Denmark, it was not uncommon at all to work half or full time from home.

Clearly, It was all about balance in Denmark.

According to a piece on the website,   Danes have 3 beliefs that assist in the balance between work and life which makes everyone happy – in fact,  the Danes are said to be more productive than most of the European Union or the United states – despite and spending far less time at work.

Balance between work and life isn’t always easy to achieve, and I imagine it is even harder to achieve if work is taking a physical and mental toll on your life. When balance is out of whack, when people are stressed, there are dangerous ramifications to feeling that kind of stress.  A 2013 survey found that 83% of Americans were stressed at work.

If those statistics were accurate, that meant that only 17% of employees said they were NOT stressed? That is staggering to me. Let’s keep this correlation in mind: Nearly 70% of our workforce in the United States is disengaged also.  I am sure there are degrees of stress, but for that many people to state they were stressed? What could that tell us?  Stress causes or exasperates a multitude of very real physical concerns: heart disease, asthma, headaches, depression, anxiety, gastrointestinal problems and accelerated aging to name a few. What is the benefit to spend years and years feeling that way and adapting that as the natural state?

Although the United States will likely never go the way of the Danes, is there a learning opportunity here for us in regards to stress, engagement, and the utilization of our talents? Can choosing strengths to manage stress actually bring more balance? First, let’s explore stress a little deeper.

Stress: Good or Bad?

When I think about my work stress, it usually boils down to my feeling out of place, out of sync with my gifts and strengths…meaning I know I have the ability to make a contribution, but cannot because of the respective circumstance.  Perhaps you have felt handcuffed because of the law of the situation. As a manager, when I am in a situation where I am unable to feel free to manage as I see fit, or placed in an impossible situation with extremely difficult employees, the gut starts churning, the “bad for me food” starts being my go-to and the heart starts palpitating.  Although my heart rate elevates, this is not the cardio workout that the Doctor prescribed. Maybe you have experienced this scenario or similar ones. The stress is high, barriers between colleagues are high and the performance and results leave something to be desired. Status quo sets in and normalcy becomes a state of high stress and potentially high disengagement.

Perhaps this takes place at work, but does it have ripples into other areas of our lives? Can it trigger disengaging in other areas of life?  Perhaps instead of having dinner together with the family, you need to respond to e-mails for work right now, and that as well becomes the new normal. What other areas can this ripple into? Perhaps you are present but not present…there physically, but not really checked in.

I am no scientist, and I know some levels of stress can be healthy for us.  Some adversity allows us the ability to rise up and prevail, to break through and have growth. However, is a state of stress that is merely status quo, leaving us feeling trapped, untapped, undervalued and disconnected the right type of stress? Is a stress that consistently triggers disengagement and feelings of inadequacy really the kind that is going to lead to growth?

A Strengths-Based approach allows us to use our talents intentionally and purposefully, where we are in what our friends at 15 Five call: our Zone of Genius…our zone that allows us to be most impactful and make the best contributions we can. As you can see in the 15 Five Case study, they have experienced incredible growth and Strengths have been an integral part of that. Did they have no stress during this process? Absolutely not!  As Simon Sinek says:

“Working hard for something we don’t care about is called stress; working hard for something we love is called passion.”

Now let’s face it, all of our work is not passion. That being said, when we are in a place where we can harness the power of our strengths and lean on the strengths of others, our energy will be much higher as we feel valued for the value we bring in the way of our contributions.  We know we will be challenged at work like the 15 Five team is, but we will also be able to become a better version of ourselves.

Choosing Strengths To Manage Stress: It Is a Choice!

We may not live in Denmark and get those benefits, but we can make the most of the benefits we do have….our understanding of our talents and the intentional and purposeful utilization of them! So again, we come back to: can choosing strengths to manage stress be effective for us?

Remember…It is up to us as individuals to make this choice.  It is up to us as leaders of organizations to create the cultures that allow for choosing a strengths-based development approach to thrive.  It is up to us as parents to develop our children around an orientation of their strengths. That is how we aim for excellence. As much as we love the Danish, we may not need to become Danish to at least accomplish a lowered level of unhealthy stress.

When we are in a difficult spot, we have the choice when it comes to the tools we utilize. If those tools are our strengths and talents, it is more likely that a positive outcome will be found (instead of the vending machine full of chocolate!)

When I am feeling my hands are tied as a manager, I have options that will keep me productive and ward off the stress. I can use my communication to speak with my boss and voice my concerns. I can use my Intellection to explain why I would take a different course of action. I can use my Connectedness to connect what I believe to be the goals and targets and make my case clearly.  Or, I can find outside applications for my strengths that might be enough to get me through the stress at work by feeding my need to use them in positive ways.

I can use my strengths to create more positive outcomes.

I can use my strengths to relieve stress.

Or, I can settle and feel far more stress than I should feel. Far more stress than our friends in Denmark feel. I am not upending and moving, but instead am refreshed with the perspective on how to achieve less stress through better aiming talent.  Here’s the thing, I want to be on a plane in thirty plus years sharing my own wisdom about stress with a 50 something who thought she knew it all.

Have you identified your strengths and ways that you can utilize them intentionally and purposefully to create more positive outcomes? Beyond that, how are you making the choice each day to engage your strengths, so they show up best in all that you do?

Do you know your Top Five?  Take the StrengthsFinder ® HERE.

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Shelley Hom is a technology manager with the State of California who was introduced to Strengths Finder through a leadership academy at work. Using what she has learned both in her work and personal life, she mentors colleagues, family and friends on using ones’ strengths to get them where they want to go! When she isn’t working, she loves hanging out with people and enjoying the simple things life has to offer; laughing, chatting, reading, and let’s not forget writing – all usually done with a really good cup of coffee close at hand! Outside of blogging for 34 Strong Shelley’s own blog can be found at: 

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