Stress Help: When Silence is Stressful

They call it ‘solitary silence’  –  that internalising of frustration and resentment, that is known to be a threat to executive health but which has been regarded as the usual reaction to ensure that your job security is not threatened. There is a long tradition of keeping quiet about one’s grievances, however much stress and anxiety they set up, partly also out of reluctance to be seen criticising the management, but also as a measure of dignity and self-respect.

However, recent research into occupational stress has demonstrated the physical harm that can come from solitary silence. According to the Stress Research Centre Institute at Stockholm University, male workers who suppressed their anger in respect of unfair treatment in the workplace, are 40 percent more likely to suffer a heart attack or die from heart disease than those who vent their anger. (The study tracked 2755 men for ten years, comparing work and health factors.)

Clearly, then, there is an urgent need to create an opportunity for everyone to vent their feelings in order to minimise and relieve the stress effects. The most obvious method is known as ‘upward feedback’, where workers report candidly on their perception of their managers. This view from below provides valuable research for top directors to assess performance, though it may affect relations between employee and supervisor.

Unfortunately, that traditional tendency to keep quiet about problems in the workplace, has actually increased.  All over the world, solitary silence remains a silent killer that destroys resistance to stress.

‘School report’

Harith was a young dental technician trained in a big factory in Mumbai, where the discipline was very strict and ‘manager/employee dynamics’ merely consisted of inspection and correction.

When he got his new job in a smaller and more sophisticated firm in Dubai, he had to acclimatise to very different surroundings, and found it more disorienting than he had expected. In particular, he was completely unprepared for the quarterly ‘upward feedback’ exercise.

He listened in astonishment the first time the HR Manager explained that employees were being encouraged to set down their grievances on paper, with full licence to describe the perceived shortcomings of named managers. What was this?  Was he meant to write some kind of school-report about his own boss?

Harith did actually have some grievances. An uneven workload that was the result of inefficient management and a particular grievance against his having to act as receptionist and switchboard at certain times.  He had also heard persistent rumours about bullying by one of the supervisors.

All this tended to exacerbate his work stress, but he found himself unable to take the ‘opportunity to vent’ that was on offer.

I was just coming to the end of a training project on healthy workplace culture at that firm, when I happened to talk to Harith in the canteen. As a counsellor, I could instantly detect stress symptoms, and I asked him what was wrong. He said he couldn’t bring himself to fill in the feedback form on his line manager.

I was able to tell the HR team that here was the perfect test for their new skills in creating an environment of trust within the team. I hope they succeeded.

Key points about ‘solitary silence’

  • New research proves the danger of internalising grievances
  • ‘Opportunities to vent’ need to be provided for employees
  • Upward feedback, reporting on superiors, is one major outlet

Do you have strong views on this aspect of stress reduction?  Then give us the benefit of your stress management strategies

[Reprinted with the kind permission of Gulf News]

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