Prolonged Team Stress – Unfortunately or Fortunately?

Published: September 9, 2020

Adult coping skills are built for crisis management. Some fight, some flee and some freeze. Each instinct has value. The fighters take action, the fleers seek safety and the freezers observe. Action, safety and observation are all important aspects of navigating trouble. In the moment of the challenge, the body ramps up some functions (heart rate, brain speed) and slows down others (immune system, digestion). All of this is designed to make us more focused and efficient under duress. However, this heightened state is unsustainable for long periods. These days, you don’t have to look too far to find a team falling apart under the pressure of prolonged stress.

Depending on which study you cite, the average human can sustain about a month of constant pressure before coping skills begin to break down. The symptoms include everything from ineffective decision making to the inability to fight off illness due to a compromised immune system. Healthcare professionals reference the term “neuropsychoimmunology” which basically means prolonged stress makes you sick.

We make our best decisions when calm. University of Pennsylvania psychologists note the importance of time (the challenge is temporary), scope (it doesn’t affect everything) and blame (there are factors beyond our control) in supporting resilience. Harvard University’s Mind-Body Institute teaches the 4-7-8 Breathing technique (inhale into your diaphragm for 4 seconds, hold the breath for 7 seconds, exhale slowly for 8 seconds) to quickly restore mindfulness when stressed. Smartphone apps like Calm and Headspace can teach you how to meditate in ten minutes. 

When you coalesce a group of stressed people onto a team, each teammate’s wellness and coping ability affects everyone else. It only takes one teammate in a downward spiral to derail a project. So, beyond encouraging everyone to stay mentally and physically healthy, there are shared responsibilities that everyone assumes by accepting membership on a team. Staying committed to these basic anchors helps minimize the risk of toxic or dysfunctional words or actions when the team is suffering.

  1. Reclarify team values. Treat them as a consensus code-of-conduct.
  2. Commit to mature and productive conflict resolution. Use dialogue instead of attacking or withdrawing.
  3. Make respect non-negotiable. Fix what’s broken if someone slips.
  4. Boost accountability. Don’t let slippage become normalized and excused.
  5. Innovate. Exploration and discovery are energizing paths to solving problems.
  6. Refuel and restore. Our emotional bank accounts need deposits to counterbalance withdrawals. 
  7. Embrace the energizing nature of change. As soon as possible, follow the “this sucks” stage with a “what are we going to do about it” stage.

Play the “unfortunately/fortunately” game. When the description of your circumstances begins with, “Unfortunately…,” restate the sentence with the word “Fortunately.” So, rather than saying, “Unfortunately, my speaking engagements scheduled in large auditoriums with hundreds of people were cancelled due to the pandemic,” I’ll say, “Fortunately, the gap in my schedule resulting from cancelled speeches enabled me to author my next book and launch my new telehealth consulting project.” Team wellness goes beyond good chemistry and healthy group dynamics. It also rests on every teammate’s commitment to managing stress like an adult. On teams, when one suffers, we all suffer. Fortunately, when one thrives, we all thrive.

Photo of Steve Ritter, the co-founder of The Center for Team Excellence

Steve Ritter

Steve Ritter is an internationally recognized expert on team dynamics whose clients include Fortune 500 companies, professional sports teams, and many educational organizations. He is on the faculty of the Center for Professional Excellence at Elmhurst University where he earned the President's Award for Excellence in Teaching. Steve is the former Senior Vice President, Director of Human Resources at Leaders Bank, named the #1 Best Place to Work in Illinois in 2006 and winner of the American Psychological Association's Psychologically Healthy Workplace Award in 2010. Steve provides ongoing workplace culture consultation to many thriving companies including Kraft Foods, Advocate Health Care, Kellogg's, the Chicago White Sox, AthletiCo, and Northwestern Mutual Financial Network.