Insurance against stress; it might be too costly


Insurance against stress; it might be too costly

  • By Ian Bradley
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I’ll just run this by my boss” was a phrase that I heard all too frequently from my client who came to see me about work-related stress. Laura, a young woman in her first major corporate job, worked for a boss who micro-managed. The boss, who did not like surprises, insisted upon being appraised about each and every decision Laura was about to undertake.

Although Laura’s job description included elements such as “contribute to strategic direction” and “self-starter for initiatives,” she found herself checking even the most mundane of details – even seating arrangements at luncheon meetings. Early in her tenure, she was “burned” by the boss for many of these minor decisions that she had made on her own. So now, when confronted with decisions and anxiety about which route would her boss like to endorse, she checks things out. Laura views the “running by” as a type of insurance against further criticisms and negative reviews.

Problem is: she’s stressed. BF Skinner, the founder of radical behaviourism, could have told her why.

His theory was “radical” because it explained behaviour relying exclusively upon contextual environmental events – either triggers to cue a behaviour or those all-important consequences that serve to maintain a behaviour.

Briefly summarized, these consequences produce two types of learning – positive or negative reinforcement depending upon whether the consequences are added or removed. In positive reinforcement, the person gains something desirable for displaying a new behaviour. In negative reinforcement, some pain is reduced for displaying a good behaviour.

The interesting aspect is that both types of learning work equally well – that is, both can teach new things at approximately the same rate.

But there is one big difference – a life dominated by negative reinforcement is stressful. In Laura’s case we can see why. Her effort to “check things out” is the psychological equivalent of paying her premium for flood insurance. However, for real insurance, you pay it once a year and you can quickly dismiss that horrendous mental image of your new IPad floating in a pool of living-room water.

However, paying a daily premium is not only costly, but you are never able to totally dismiss the disaster out of your mind. The insurance premium and what it protects against – “the flood” – become so connected in your thinking that the insurance, instead of being reassuring, becomes alarming.

Working to avoid censure, criticism, conflict or whatever negative thing one might fear, never makes one satisfied or happy. More likely, its repeated use leaves one stressed.