The Toxic Effects of SECOND HAND STRESS

Second Hand Stress

Smoking is one of those activities that can clearly go beyond the individual smoker himself to also impact those around him as well. Acutely, the effects of “second hand” smoking are tangible- seen visibly in the smoke itself, smelled on clothing, and tasted as smoke enters the body. Chronically, long-term “second hand” exposure can also lead to the same cancer and other diseases that impact the smoker himself.

Now, this post is not intended to denounce, support, or otherwise present an opinion on the habit of smoking… but rather to use it as a metaphor. Smoking is a choice that an individual can make, even in knowing that there are clear short and long-term risks, through assessing that the benefits outweigh the costs. However, this choice is made more complex by the knowledge and understanding that it not only puts the individual at risk, but can also impact those around him. And this risk is easy to internalize because cigarette smoke is a tangible entity that creates a visible and observable “cloud” from the smoker outward.  Essentially, it is clear and obvious for a smoker to see that his actions have the potential to have a real impact on those around him, and he therefore can (or must in many cases) adjust his actions accordingly to minimize the impact on others..

Stress on the other hand is much more difficult to dimensionalize.  Similar to smoking, much of the stress that we experience in our lives is the result of choices that we, as individuals, make.  The late hours that we spend agonizing over a report or presentation, the time we spend writing email on our days off, or the general over-commitments that we make in both our professional and personal lives are choices that we make to enable some personal benefit.  Whether that benefit is success at work, more money to improve our quality of life, the prestige or pride that comes with being successful, or something else… we choose to take on stress as a “side effect” of our success “drug” of choice.  Essentially, whether consciously or subconsciously, we decide that the personal downsides that result from stress are overcome by the upside that arises.  Again, acutely there can be negative impacts- sleep deprivation, poor diet & exercise habits, anxiety, etc. can plague an individual who is overly stressed.  Chronically, there are risks as well as long-term stress can be a definitive source of career burnout, heart problems, high blood pressure, susceptibility to disease, and more.

So what does this have to do with innovation or with leading an organization?  As individuals, when we choose to “over work” for whatever the reason, it is easy to see that this choice can have a detrimental impact on our own effectiveness and well-being… and this even may be a tradeoff that in itself we are willing to make.  What is less tangible, however, is the “invisible cloud” that emanates around us from the stress that we are “exhaling”.  While not tangible, visible, or tactile, the “smoke” that comes to our employees, our coworkers, and our organization is certainly real and can result in short and long-term havoc on our office culture, innovative capability, and the overall health of our organizations.

  • Under stress, our strengths devolve into our weaknesses.  Almost unanimously, I have found that an individual’s greatest weakness stems from his/her greatest strength.  If we are detail-oriented, we may turn to a micro-manager.  If we are aggressive, we can get confrontational.  If we are creative, we might become divergent and indecisive.  What is worse, it is very difficult to recognize these behaviors in ourselves because they are so similar to the strengths that have made us successful.  As leaders, it is critical that we have trusted mentors and strong partners to help us recognize both the warning signs and the ramifications of our stress behaviors.  If left unaddressed, not only will our personal effectiveness suffer, but our ability to lead our organizations will suffer as well.
  • As a leader, our stress activities are addictive and contagious.  One of my primary stress activities is to catch up on email during ridiculous hours, sometimes in the middle of the night.  I often will try to remedy an over-flowing inbox by responding and forwarding email over evenings, nights, and weekends when nobody else is online.  When I join a new team, this behavior is at first freeing for me as I get to feel the sensation of “catching up”, to erase some clutter from my life, and to allow myself to focus on bigger and better things.  Over time, however, this behavior becomes destructive both to me and to my teams.  For me, I grow to count on using my “free time” (or sleep time!) to commit to working, and I actually become less productive during the work day (“I will just save that for tonight when there are less distractions.”).  This can become a vicious cycle and ultimately I can burn out and burn some bridges with my family at home.  For my group, as they get used to seeing me crank out emails at all hours of the night, they often start to believe that this practice is an expectation.  The more I email at night, the more my team does as well and I no longer am just running myself into the ground… I am inadvertently running them into the ground as well.  This is just one example of many, and I have no illusions that I will ever completely rid myself of behaviors like this.  However, it is critical that these are the exception and not the rule so that my bad habit does not evolve into an addiction that is contagious to my team. 
  • If stress is aired out, the “smell of the place” will suffer.  I spent several years early in my career working on deodorants and antiperspirants, and we used to talk about the “smell of the place”.  Not literally of course… this is how we talked about the culture and energy of the organization.  This energy or smell was largely dictated by how the leaders managed and communicated in times of stress.  When the attitude and rhetoric was that of crisis, problems, and even panic, the organization smelled like fear.  When the tonality was that of challenges, opportunities, and inspiration, the organization smelled like hope.  As leaders, how we feel and respond to our own stress and crises can and will have a direct and indirect impact not just on the actions and behaviors of the organization, but on the attitude and spirit of the place as well.
  • An increase in pressure will ultimately decrease the volume and creativity of innovation.  If you studied chemistry at all in school, you are probably familiar with the Ideal Gas Law (PV=nRT).  If you did not study chemistry at all… bear with me here!   Basically, for an ideal gas, if all other variables are held constant and you increase the pressure, the volume will decrease.  Not only that, but ultimately the entropy (for sake of example, entropy is a measure of latent energy, randomness, and possibilities) of the system will also decrease.  Taking the metaphor to this example on stress… over the long-term, if you increase the pressure on an ideal innovation organization, the volume and creativity of the innovation will ultimately decrease.  Now, in the short-term, this may be masked because an increase in pressure can cause an acceleration in “activity” and maybe even some immediate progress.  Over time, however, this excess pressure and stress on an organization will squeeze both the quantity and quality of work in a negative direction.
  • Secure your own mask first before helping others.  I will admit, I have heard this spiel dozens of times from well-meaning flight attendants.  Of course, I know that they are right… pragmatically speaking I can be of more help to those around me if I help myself first.  Instinctively, though, this is a difficult concept to imagine actually practicing.  Most of us naturally want to help others before we take care of ourselves… particularly if these “others” are people that we care about.  In our organizations, when we see our teams and our colleagues struggling we naturally want to offer our time, energy, and capacity to help them out.  And to be clear, that is typically both the right instinct and the right action.  However, when we ourselves are in crisis, we need to first make sure that we are under control before “saving” those around us.  This is difficult, particularly for “servant leaders”, but is important to ultimately do what is best for the greater good.  If we don’t manage our own stress and pressure before trying to “solve the world’s problems”, we will ultimately do more harm than good and be less effective overall.

Clearly, much of this is an oversimplification and there are a lot of exceptions. Not all stress is self-inflicted nor is it always a negative. Sometimes situations and circumstances outside of our control lead to our overwhelmed state, and sometimes a pressure situation will actually help a team perform in the “clutch”. That said, the majority of the stress we live is stress we create, and over time it will take a toll not only on us as individuals, but on our organizations. Regardless of the cause, as leaders we must be aware of the impact that our own anxiety will have and must actively work to minimize the “second hand stress” that we cause. If we descend down a path of overwork and overextension, we must remember that if we poison ourselves, the air around us can become toxic as well.


Check out my book, Agents of Change, available in paperback and eBook additions on

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