Stress-management training is a fixture in the training curriculum of almost every medium-sized or large company, along with interviewing skills, goal setting, time management and a handful of other perennial favorites.
I am a huge proponent of most of these topics, but not of stress management.
In my career, I have frequently succumbed to various types of pressure and offered a stress-management course. Obviously, it's not all bad. The trainers enjoy developing and delivering the course, voluntary attendance is high and course evaluations are positive.
Let's start this analysis with attendance. I said that voluntary attendance is high, and it is. Why? Because most of our employees truly are enduring extreme amounts of stress in their lives and are looking for solutions.
I also said that participants rate the course highly, and they do. Why? I suggest it is because they liked the trainer, they enjoyed the respite from their daily work, and the content of the training was positive and reinforced their existing beliefs.
So, what's not to like?
My issue is that the processes and techniques that we train will not go far toward solving the problems of the people we are training. Yes, certainly nutrition, rest, exercise, life/work balance and positive attitudes are good things - who could argue? Our participants probably knew this before they came to class, although it does no harm to hear it again. But these tools are the solutions to bad eating habits, chronic fatigue, a flabby lifestyle, and so on. And the stressors bedeviling our participants are usually more basic and more recalcitrant.
We can separate them generally into two categories: non-work stressors and work stressors.
The most common non-work stressors are health, family, relationships and financial issues. Sadly, they are more than common - they are practically ubiquitous.
Let's take our sample person, Mary. She has frequent migraines that incapacitate her for two days at a time; her father was just diagnosed with cancer; her marriage is shaky at best; and when her financial adviser told her she needed to be saving much more if she ever hoped to retire, she had a sudden urge to scratch his eyes out because she has $7,000 in credit-card debt, her car needs tires and the dishwasher just died. If you take a thousand Marys, each will have a different profile of non-work stressors. But our Mary is (unfortunately) very typical.
What solutions can training offer Mary? Eat more fiber? Lay out tomorrow's work clothes before you go to bed tonight? Don't worry about things you can't control? Those bromides are a thin blanket for a cold night.
How about work stressors? The most common ones are boring work, infuriating office politics, impossible deadlines and/or workload, horrific management and inadequate pay.
Mary's husband, Gregory, is our case study here. He is one of three customer-service supervisors for the regional hub of a major auto insurance company. He spends half of every day on the phone with furious policyholders whose claims have been denied; and his staff has been cut because the regional president (who earns $375,000 a year) told them they all have to tighten their belts in these hard times - yet he takes home about $1,000 dollars a week. "Pretty good money," he tells himself grimly, "50 years ago."
What can we do for Gregory in a training class? Once again, sadly, the answer is: "Not much."
We simply don't have much in the training arsenal to fix the painfully real problems that Mary and Gregory (and every one of us) deal with today. So, do I think we should get out of the stress-management training business? Yes, I do. Do I think we will? Never. It's popular and it's embedded in the culture. But I don't think it's the best use of our painfully scarce training resources.
Do I think we should get out of the stress-management training business? Yes, I do. Do I think we will? Never.
Andrew S Hubbard is director of training for Envoy Mortgage in Houston. He is a well-known writer and speaker on training topics, and has published three books on the art of training. He can be reached at ahubbardlOSO@yahoo.com.