A Salmon's Tale: Why Happiness Beats Going Belly Up

Stress reactions are costly.

Of course, not all events are worth the same price, but many executives often respond as if they are. Stressed executives can exhibit the same heart rate increase, elevated blood pressure, and hormonal release when running late for a meeting as if confronted by a thug with a knife. The human toll is the equivalent of paying $1,500 for a $50 sweater. Do that too frequently and your resources will be spent. Take similar exhaustion across the organization and the tally becomes astronomical. Many distressed companies not only fail to realize how distressed they are, but also how much that distress costs them in productivity and profit.

How not to go belly up

Have you ever wondered why salmon die after spawning? Their adrenal glands become hyperactive from exhaustion swimming up the rivers to their spawning grounds. The constant "on" cycle causes the control mechanisms to fail and the adrenals to keep pumping. After spawning, salmon die from an excess of stimulation. If you remove the adrenal glands immediately after spawning, the salmon will live on, quite happy to take their retirement in their natal streams. Nature does not care that the adult salmon die from adrenal overload, because by now the salmon have procreated. But you may care not to go belly up from work-related stress because, strung out from pressure, you drown yourself to death on the tides of business.

Collectively, Americans are working about two weeks more per year than are their closest business rivals, the Japanese, since 1999. Americans have more material possessions to show for the effort, but at the same time studies show a diminishing level of "happiness." Chasing after the proverbial "American dream" has not brought much emotional satisfaction. As a society, we sleep approximately two hours less than people living at the turn of the twentieth century, a of overwork and stress. Far too many people whose jobs should help sustain life find their jobs become a source of stress and fear, killing them spiritually, emotionally, mentally, and physically. They are unhappy people working for unhappy companies.

To say a company is "unhappy" implies that the business concerns itself with feelings that are inappropriate in the workplace. Yet a lack of awareness that work is an emotionally based and often emotionally charged environment is what causes the negative emotions to go unchecked and positive emotions to go unused. Companies already stressed by market conditions have no qualms about asking their employees to increase their workload. Out of fear of losing their jobs or a desire to turn the company around, employees often display amazing abilities to work under pressure. However, as the story of the salmon demonstrates, "above and beyond" performance for too long comes at a fearsome cost. Asking someone to sustain too great a load for too long will undeniably lead to detrimental outcomes, as the military knows when it schedules troop deployments into battle. The exhausting litany of perils and the damaging results of stress exact as huge a toll on organizations and on individuals. Measurable costs to a business—disability and death, and expenses, accidents, loss of employees, sick leave, and reduced or lost productivity—total $300 billion annually in the U.S. This exceeds the total profits of the collective Fortune 500 in 2006.

Companies and employees alike must develop well-thought-out strategies to identify, defuse, and overcome stress. Taking personal responsibility for recognizing and adapting to stress is a start, but health-optimizing programs are needed to help people develop physical and psychological resilience; and and techniques are needed to help reshape the individual's interior functioning to achieve a coherent emotional and psychological state. These techniques include relaxation therapies, cognitive therapies aimed at teaching optimism, and strategies to find positive meaning in fundamental aspects of work.

All of the programs described here and elsewhere are found in our book What Happy Companies Know and are designed to call upon positive emotions that induce the body's physiological systems into a natural state of coherence. They naturally induce any person into a higher state of mental and emotional functioning and ultimately can result in higher performance. Once aware, the body and mind tend to return there when stress is present. The overall impact is superior mental and physical which ultimately leads to better judgment with customers and co-workers, better decisions, and an overall increase in performance. Thus Happiness = Profit.

As one of many examples, a Duke University study of 800 heart patients found that those who reported positive emotions and joy were 20 percent more likely to be alive after 11 years than those who reported negative emotions. We would like to think that companies that practice good coaching skills to develop high-performance teams will also have the same outcome—in this case, a positive work environment with the ability to retain talent longer and achieve longer-term goals during the life of their business.

People have long spoken of the heart as being the center of emotion, and today when people "speak from the heart" they speak from an emotional rather than logical perspective. Any business owner or frontline leader can learn to speak from the heart by applying coaching. It is simply another language, like business lingo or industry knowledge. People who want teams of people to communicate well often speak in terms of being on the same wavelength.

It is fascinating that the latest in the new science of happiness indicates that both of these ideas are literally true. Dr. Reuven Bar-On, a founding father on the subject of Emotional Intelligence, recently introduced us to more supporting data from research with more than 52,000 people clearly showing that "Optimism" (a fancy word for happiness) can influence performance by as much as 80 percent.

We know in our consulting work at h2c with any number of businesses that almost anyone can apply coaching skills if they have the opportunity to simply learn them and understand how to apply them in the workplace. Synchronizing the heart and mind through frontline coaching practices turns out not only to be the best way to eliminate stress but also the best way to create the most optimal personal interactions in business. "Optimal personal interactions" is a more acceptable business language for "happier interactions." Yet it is these "happy interactions" within a working group that cause people to awaken each morning looking forward to work with passion and joy. Even better, it is the most important key to turning "happiness into profit" for everyone.

Cathy L. Greenberg is a consultant, speaker, coach, and authority on leadership and human behavior. She is a founding partner of h2c: Happy Companies, Healthy People, and co-author of the book What Happy Companies Know: How the New Science of Happiness Can Change Your Company for the Better. To learn more, visit www.h2cleadership.com.

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