I don’t particularly like taffy. I like stress even less. But gooey taffy and job stress seem to have more in common than my dislike for both: In fact, sticky, stretchy taffy represents a good conceptual model for identifying, differentiating and coping with—and, yes, even exchanging—the forms of stress that can be experienced at work, or anywhere, for that matter.
When I say “a good model”, I mean that because what we can do to taffy is almost identical to much of what stress can do to us, taffy can help us with the first stage of dealing and coping with stress, namely, identifying what kind of stress it is (since “pressure” is not the only kind). In medical parlance, that is called “diagnosis”, always the indispensable preliminary to treatment and control.
Taffy is like us: It can be put under pressure, by compressing it. It can be twisted and bent out of shape. It can be stretched and pulled to breaking points and beyond. Taffy can be tied into knots, fragmented, frozen or rolled over and over itself (like a overworked snake futilely trying to swallow itself, to curl up into a semi-invisible, impregnable defensive ball or attempting to get traction by slithering over its own tail—to mix models for a moment here).
Like taffy, you too can
- be put under enormous pressure
- stretched to a breaking point (including being pulled in opposite directions)
- twisted and bent out of shape
- frozen —with fear or worry
- fragmented (maybe even shattered)
- tied into knots— at least emotionally and operationally
- made to “roll over” or trip over yourself
…and, in the end, like taffy, be devoured—exhausted, used up and emotionally, mentally and literally gone. In the worst case scenario, viz., losing or leaving your job, you will have left with nothing left.
There are, of course, other models of stress with fewer variables and factors than the Taffy Model—established proven models, e.g., the 2-factor “load and latitude” model that predicts a 23% higher risk of a heart attack for workers who have chronic “high load-low latitude” work situations. These are circumstances under which an employee has a heavy job burden, but little freedom or maneuvering room for dealing with it, e.g., choice of resources to throw at the job, freedom of prioritization, delegation of responsibility/authority, control of pace and timing.
The dreaded “responsibility without authority” bind is also the perfect recipe for a heart attack and heart disease, because responsibility means load, while lack of authority means lack of latitude.
In that model, identifying your stress as “load-related” rather than “latitude-related” makes a huge difference in how your stress should be managed.
Hence the importance of stress models that classify stress into useful categories, however many or few forms they identify. (Is a further classification, into two types—“stress” and “strain”—clear, comprehensive, consistent and useful? That’s the question to ask about all models of stress that do or don’t mention “strain”.)
No matter what model makes the most sense to you, if you do not recognize the kinds of stresses (and strains?) you are under, you may confuse one with another, be less able to effectively deal with either or any of them, and, interestingly, possibly miss the opportunity to transform one kind of stress into a more readily managed one.
“Stress exchange”—this is the idea that one way to reduce stress is to exchange one kind for another or to transform one into another. For example, in the latitude-load model, the stress of too much load can be transformed into the lesser stress of somewhat reduced latitude.
Imagine, for example, that you are simply too busy to do everything you are required to do in the office. So, you delegate some of that work to someone else, who may, in virtue of the delegated authority as well as responsibility, not do the job exactly the way you want it done. Oops!..Now you have latitude stress, because you’ve relinquished control you wish you still had. In effect, you’ve exchanged load stress for latitude stress.
But, if the decrease in “load stress” more than compensates for the loss of latitude (i.e., increase in “latitude stress”), you’ll come out ahead, with lower overall stress, because of a successful “stress exchange” or “stress transformation”.
Now, apply this approach to the multi-factor Taffy Model of stress:
You’ve got two deadlines on the same day, are nowhere near meeting them, and feel like a lump of taffy being compressed under pressure. Whatever the subjective sensation of pressure is, you’re experiencing it. But, as you will see, although it’s not the same as being stretched to a limit or pulled under tension by two opposing forces, that pressure can be transformed into tension by a simple reconceptualization.
Accepting the pressure as a given, you feel helpless and panicked, but soldier on. Now, some deadlines are imposed by nature or are otherwise utterly non-negotiable, e.g., getting to the bank before it closes.
Others, however, can be transformed from time pressure like this into a kind of taffy tension or pull—being pulled into two opposed directions by at least two powerful forces, e.g., two supervisors or departments that have given you two independent, but identical deadlines.
(For my introduction to the core concept of and such clear distinctions among different kinds of stress, much is owed to Dr. Robert Kissner, Ph.D., of the Focus Foundation of BC and his research into stress management.)
If you experience and describe this doubled-up supervisor stress as irresistible pressure, you are more likely to experience and frame this as a single-factor problem, viz., the pressure problem, rather than as a 2-factor or multi-factor problem, viz., the stressful pull of opposing forces.
The important implied point here is that unless all key stress variables and factors have been identified, they are unlikely to be controlled or otherwise addressed. Correctly identifying the source of the problem as tension or pulls from opposed forces opens the door to considering not only negotiating with one or both of the opposing forces, but also to having them negotiate with each other, to modify the deadlines or the situations that required them.
Notice how feeling as though you are under simple, monolithic “pressure” is less likely to lead to awareness of these triangulated stress-resolution possibilities.
Second example: You are in a meeting and your proposal is being savagely critiqued—but only in distorted form. Your chief critic and arch rival has simply or willfully misunderstood and twisted what you’ve proposed. You feel stress—but in what form? It’s not likely to feel like pressure. Maybe not tension either—despite any tension between your desire to smack him and your desire to keep your job (generally an easily resolved conflict: you keep your job, and hold your tongue and temper in check).
Suddenly, you think taffy—twisted taffy. That’s how you feel. Like a piece of softened up and twisted taffy—twisted just like your proposal has been. At the same time, the image of taffy being steamrollered (over and by itself) or made to engulf itself springs to mind: “This guy wants me to roll over and accept the idea that my proposal is flawed, to get it and me to self-destruct.” (Of course, multiple forms of stress can, as in this instance, be inflicted on us simultaneously.)
So having identified your stress as “twist” and “roll”, rather than “pressure” or “pull” (“tension”), you have identified the stress and the problem—the first step toward solving it. What do you do?
In physics, to undo a twist, apply a counter-torque: that means fight—not flight or freeze. Some of us—and I do include myself—will take on the battle (but as a very “civil” war) and fight the twist and usually win. Call this “taffy karate”—counterforce against force.
Alternatively, if you can see the twist coming, you can “twist in the wind” in a positive Taoist sense of “bending (or twisting) like the willow”: You make moves in the same direction as the twist and use it to your advantage by incorporating it into your presentation, e.g., by anticipating and allowing, so far as is possible, some aspect of the counter-interpretation or critique of your proposal. Think of this as “taffy aikido”—the soft counter-attack that utilizes one’s opponent’s momentum to neutralize his attack.
Concrete example of this: You’ve recommended hiring some full-time staff in order to meet customer demand during peak periods. Your plan’s critic stresses you out when he gives it a twist and misinterprets it as merely a plan to accommodate staff by giving in to their pleadings for a lighter work load, which will, he argues, result in diminished productivity.
You can dispute this by trying to fight and stop that twist (or spin) in its tracks (taffy karate); or you can go with that twist-flow, accept his premise that it’s a plan to make things easier for the staff—but then add a twist of your own in the same direction (taffy aikido): You argue that making things easier for the staff by hiring additional staff will, in fact, also increase everyone’s productivity and customer satisfactions (by citing analyses that demonstrate that the additional staff will generate greater efficiencies through enhanced “division of labor” and staff specialization).
As for the roll-over component of your stress, you resist the apparent attempt to get you to roll over and swallow your own tail, taffy and pride. No Pillsbury Taffy Boy, you refuse to curl up into a self-consuming ball and die, to roll over and play dead or to allow yourself to feel steamrollered. Instead, you focus on the twist form of stress and respond with taffy aikido, since dealing with the twist also eliminates the steamroller.
Metaphors, or Kinesthesia?
One bonus benefit of utilizing the Taffy Model of Stress is that it provides physical, metaphorical categories that may closely mirror and capture our actual physiological experiences, and help us better understand and cope with them.
Describing stress as “pressure”, “pull”, “knots”, “twisting”, “fragmentation”, “curl” or “being rolled (over)” seems to validly encapsulate how we actually feel viscerally or kinesthetically—in terms of our sensations of muscular contractions, tension, resistance, etc.
For example, the concept of pressure is well-captured not only by the image and feel of taffy compression, but also by the corresponding kinesthetic muscular sensations of contraction to reduce contact with that pressure source or muscular resistance against it.
Similarly, the image of a taffy pull resonates physiologically as the sensation of having one’s arms pulled. “Tension”, in the second sense of being tense and experiencing tight, stiff vigilance is well-represented by frozen taffy. As for being “tied into knots”, notice how that sounds and feels like a combination of tension (from the tugging forces) and pressure (from the tightness), probably with one’s stomach as the metaphoric epicenter possibly because of contractions of tensed abdominal muscles.
Waking Up to Stress
Mainstream science has demonstrated that there are clear and consistent physiological correlates of our perceived [and unperceiede] stress, as Stanford’s Dr. Robert Sapolsky, profiled in my analysis “Zebra Stress Management Techniques for Recruiters”, engagingly explains in his book Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers.
But even without checking for arterial plaque buildup or the cortisol and catecholamine stress-hormone levels in our bloodstreams, it may be that by identifying kinesthetic manifestations of stress we may wake up to which kind of stress we are experiencing.
Imagining or at least understanding how you are vulnerable to stresses similar to those that can be inflicted on taffy may awaken you to forms of stress you previously never noticed, conceptualized or managed.
In the best case scenario, that understanding may serve to accomplish something even more important.
Keep you from going daffy at work.