Interview with Beate Schulze
We asked Beate Schulze, head of the Stress Management programme at the University of Zurich, how much influence we ourselves have over stress in our daily lives. She leads a training course at the University of Zurich on stress management in everyday life. She is author of numerous publications on the subject of stress management and burnout prevention. Besides her teaching and research activities, she works as an independent organisation consultant and coach.
Ms Schulze, are you sometimes stressed?
Yes, of course. Although I'm pretty free to decide when and how much I work, it's still sometimes difficult to manage my professional and childcare responsibilities at the same time, especially when my husband is away on business. It’s not always easy to be organised and to find solutions.
What do you do to re-boost your energy after a busy day?
Meet friends – cook together, eat, talk. I get a lot from this feeling of community. I also take every opportunity to go to the mountains. And I like capturing the beauty of light, nature, architecture and people with my camera. This suddenly puts the "everyday stuff" into perspective.
When there’s a lot to do, we often deny ourselves time off.
It’s very common, but it's the wrong thing to do. It cheats you out of your free time and the chance to revive, which is important when you’re under a lot of pressure. This is why I always recommend that if you think you really don’t have the time for a walk in the forest or an evening at the cinema, then this is just the time to do it. It’s a good way of preventing yourself ever getting into that vicious circle of being overloaded.
What are the signs that someone is already in this vicious circle?
When they permanently ignore or drop the things that actually would be important and good. Another alarm signal is when the activities that used to relax you don’t work any more. For example: you go jogging in the evening and still feel as exhausted as before.
Do those people recognise their problem in such a situation?
It’s something that is difficult to admit to. When we’re stressed, we’re not pleasant company. We’re short-tempered and make mistakes that otherwise wouldn’t happen. We don’t always want to face this fact, which is why we often react defensively when someone speaks to us about it.
But why does everyone boast about being so stressed today?
Stress is also a social currency. It’s a sign that you do a lot and are in demand, that you have charisma and influence. In some areas of business, people now tend to greet each other not with “Hi, how are you?” but with “So, plenty to do?”. But stress immediately stops being attractive and cool when we feel overstressed and are obviously suffering. And when someone else notices.
Even children complain about stress. How is that possible?
There is talk among young people and adults today of the fomo syndrome. This stands for the ‘fear of missing out’, i.e. the fear of missing something and being excluded. Comparisons are made and further intensified by social media. Parents often take it one step further. They’re afraid of not properly supporting their children’s development, in terms of: two afternoons a week are actually enough at the age of four, but on the other hand there are so many great opportunities. This means that children already have a packed timetable. On top of this, the education system is strongly geared towards economic interests, focussing on acceleration, pressure to perform and competition.
Is it true that we produce a lot of our stress ourselves?
To a certain extent, yes. Whether we feel stressed in a particular situation depends on our assessment of it. Each individual, depending on their personality, biography and experience, decides in a split second and often unconsciously whether their resources and skills are sufficient to cope with something. It’s only if the person finally gets the feeling of being overwhelmed that the body releases stress hormones.
In that case, I have a certain control over whether I feel stressed or not?
Yes, if you're able to first gain a bit of distance to a certain situation. This means that someone can decide whether they blindly follow their body’s biological stress reactions or decide themselves how to react. Simple methods are often used to do this, such as a few deep breaths. Firefighters do this when they are called out. They pause for ten seconds, creating a clear head to ensure that they act correctly.
What is it that stresses people the most in the working world today?
Besides the requirement to be constantly available and to deliver results as quickly as possible, it continues to be bad relationships at the workplace: when conflicts smoulder and there's an atmosphere of competition. Or when an individual is unclear as to what contribution they are actually making. Constant change and digitalisation seem to reinforce these factors. All this stresses people much more than the amount of work to be done.
Is it not exaggerated for employees to always want recognition and appreciation?
No. If employees have the feeling that their efforts are being ignored or they're denied the chance to develop, this can cause so much stress that their health is put at risk – the chance of a heart attack, for example, rises significantly.
Is this another reason why we should take the subject of stress seriously?
It is highly relevant. Stress incurs companies with annual costs of around 6.5 billion francs. The reasons for this are that stress-related sick leave is increasing rapidly and absences last longer. In addition, losses occur even when employees are present – they are present but don't deliver full performance levels because the stress they're feeling overpowers their resources.
WHO recently recognised burnout as a health risk. What do you make of this?
In my opinion it’s a good decision. In today’s service and platform economy, demands have changed. Employees are required to deliver cognitive performance, be communicative, and apply emotion to their work. It stands to reason that this causes people to wear themselves out. Acknowledging this should also help destigmatise the phenomenon. After all, the fear of quickly being labelled as unable to cope is what worries and drives many employees. Unfortunately it also drives them beyond their own health limits.