Work: Surviving versus Thriving
Aspire Learning Space
Mar 30, 2020

You slept 8 hours and woke up tired still.  You went to work barely on time, had to have another coffee as soon as you arrived at work and ate chocolate during lunch break. Does this sound like a familiar day to you?

Evolutionary biology teaches us that mankind was designed with a key survival feature that allows humans to act quickly in threatening situations and to always be ready to react. This is famously known as the Fight or Flight response.

American psychologist Walter Cannon first described this response in the 1920s. If a tiger were to attack one of our ancient ancestors, evolution kicked in. Bypassing the brain’s neurons, the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) would kick start a chain of physiological events that would propel the body into one of two options; fighting or fleeing.

Blood is drained from the stomach and skin to be circulated quicker towards the limbs. This allows glucose to reach the muscles needed for either a fight or for escape. This is brought upon by adrenal hormones that induce higher heart rate, dilated pupils and pale skin.

Without this mechanism, our ancient ancestors and even today, humans would not be able to deal with threats efficiently enough.

However, the 21st century poses a different challenge to us. We have come a long way since the prehistoric ages. The average person is not worried about an attack and we do not hunt to survive anymore. And yet, we often respond to working environments in the same way our ancestors did to physical life-threatening danger.

According to ILO’s[1] most recent figures in the Middle East, the legal limits are open for long hours: eight out of 10 countries permit weekly working hours in excess of 60 hours per week. This creates an environment where overwork is common. In Japan, the word “Karoshi” means death from overwork.

The world is becoming more and more aware of the crisis of overwork. Many academic studies have begun to reveal that the amount of hours that are compulsorily added on to workers is staggering.

Inevitably, workers deal with stress and more and more and so our evolutionary-tuned bodies respond to this as a threat. With that in mind, you will find common signs in employees that are hard to miss and yet are often overlooked.

  • Coffee is your best friend and three to four mugs a day become the norm.
    • No deep sleep regardless of how much.
    • Pale skin and even pimples.
    • Work performance is affected negatively regardless of the hours you put in.
    • High intake of sugary foods.
    • In some cases, PTSD.
    • Work in not enjoyable.
    • Frequent stomach discomfort.

The Fight or Flight response, also known as the acute stress response, was never designed to last hours a day, let alone 40 hour-weeks or more. It’s efficient when used for quick bursts of energy needed in dangerous situations. One of the reasons soldiers suffer from PTSD is due to their bodies leaning so much on this mechanism. So too do workers who do the same subconsciously.

That double espresso at 1PM or the chocolate bars at 3PM are your body’s attempts at sustaining the Fight or Flight response longer than it should. And no matter how many hours of sleep you get, you wake up tired. This is because your body is preparing you in case you’re attacked in your sleep. And without enough nutrients reaching your stomach or skin, those organs show signs of fatigue such as indigestion or your skin breaking out despite your expensive facials.

Even though some of the blame falls on the extra hours, it stands to reason that with less hours, you would still suffer the same side effects. Therefore, to tackle this problem you’ll have to find a different approach.

The idea is to rewire your body. Stress automatically triggers the response, so by relieving that stress or channeling it in a healthy way, you’d be able to better face your daily workload. Here are some examples that might help you.

  • Sleep 7 hours instead of 8, and use the extra house to practice your favourite sport. Early in the morning helps set the tone for the rest of the day. It could even be just an hour of playing your favourite instrument.
  • When under threat, one often isn’t very kind to those around them. Try to find time for social and intimate bonding, your body will start to regulate its hormones and won’t be threatened.
  • Vegetables help regulate your hormones making it easier to be relaxed and not have to deal with indigestion.
  • SMART goals. Check the diagram below.

Stress is inevitable and even character building but only to a limit. At Aspire, we want you to find your own balance at work and be able to say you enjoy what you do.

Through this article, we hope we’ve helped you at least understand the problem since that’s the first step in solving anything.

Write to us on how you deal with work or how you’ve overcome your own stress response.

[1]“Which Country Works the Longest Hours?” BBC Worklife. BBC. Accessed March 27, 2020.

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