Researcher And Author Looks At Implications Of Chronic Stress At Work

There has been a lot of research into how leaders with low self-esteem are likely to cause toxic stress at work. Simon L. Dolan, author of De-Stress at Work: Understanding and Combatting Chronic Stress has brought together the research into a book. In the chapter about toxic leaders specifically, he summarizes and analyses the results of many other studies and he has done many studies himself.

“The underlying concept behind this book, is to demystify the concept of chronic stress,” Dolan told us. “It is poorly understood, poorly used, and there are no, or very few, valid diagnostic tools available to professionals in the field. I wanted in this book to summarize my 40+ years of research in the field into a guide that will help people, managers, leaders and organizations understand how to better manage chronic stress. Actually, the title could easily be called: learn the secrets to enhance resilience.” 

Dolan had a theory and a model that was refined ever since he worked with the ‘father of stress’, Dr Hans Selye.  The model is trying to answer three questions, the first being how you know that you are stressed, and why is it detrimental to your physical or mental health. 

”This is based on my definition of stress,” explained Dolan, “which means that it exists since the moment that it causes wear and tear to the body or the soul.”  

The second question Dolan was trying to answer is what are the sources or possible causes of stress in the two spheres of life that we operate: work and home; and the third question was why and how the same causes of stress affect people differently, in other words why some people under similar conditions become stressed and others do not?

In the book, Dolan explains an incident he had at the Mayo clinic in Minnesota while he was a doctoral student.  After asking close to 200 professionals who survived their first cardiovascular infarct what they thought was the prime cause for their condition, he was shocked to learn that over 90% attributed the cause to one area – work. He then decided to delve more specifically into this, and study the psychosocial work environment. 

“This type of toxicity had no colour and no odour, but the consequences were devastating,” Dolan told us. “At that time, I started to think about philosophical questions, such as what constitute success in life? In 1979, I published my first article where I proposed a bi-dimensional model of success: Individual and organizational. Real success comes when you are productive and maintain your health, this is a win-win. The worse case is when you are unproductive and also get sick, a lose-lose. And then, there are the combinations of success at work but paying the health price, and/or success at life but failing to perform. My challenge was to develop a model where we can predict (based on complex configuration) where each employee is likely to end up. From there, there was a significant revolution and tens of studies that gradually refined the model and specified the tools to be used in the diagnosis.”

Dolan tested the theory in  different sectors, in different samples and different cultures and countries. Sometimes the focus was only on mental health and the dependent variable to explain, sometimes it was on health consequence such as blood pressure, or stomach ailments. All in all, most people do not realize that they are stressed (chronically) because the signs and symptoms are not obvious.  

“So, when the accumulation bursts and real disease or mental breakdown occurs, it might be too late,” Dolan told us. “Because we are not supermen nor superwomen, although many want us to behave this way. It is not sustainable.  My conclusion was that we need to develop reliable tools to measure chronic stress, and intervene before it is too late.”

Dolan was surprised that although stress has been talked about for many years, we only developed long-term measures of it. He decided that the time had come to develop a tool to help health professionals diagnose chronic stress in daily life.  And just clinical evaluation is not enough.  

Dolan developed a stress map, a tool based on gamification principles that detects chronic stress easily and with relative precision. He also invented a new metric to measure the signs of symptoms (extracted from previous research), the ‘density’ of stress.  Density is an algorithm that multiplies the frequency of a sign/symptoms by its severity.

Dolan believes he is providing health professionals with the three components that will help them turn stress into resilience for their patients or customers. There is a theory (model), there is a methodology that explains clearly how to implement the theory and there are tools. From there, a baseline can be established, an action plan taken, a follow-up possible, and evaluation of results (i.e. successfully managing the stress).  He is currently developing an online tools that will complement the stress map.

“For years I have published serious research that was hailed by academics but was known and read by handful of people,” Dolan told us. “Now, I am complementing the research by converting complex models (and it is indeed complex) into something that is simpler, but most important can be used either by everybody (if you think you understand and have the resources) or by health professionals. This is a unique niche, and if I can help a large  community of health professionals to use these three essential elements in their word (model, methodology, measures-tools), I feel like I am really adding value.”

About the Author

Patricia Tomasi is a mom, maternal mental health advocate, journalist, and speaker. She writes regularly for the Huffington Post Canada, focusing primarily on maternal mental health after suffering from severe postpartum anxiety twice. You can find her Huffington Post biography here. Patricia is also a Patient Expert Advisor for the North American-based, Maternal Mental Health Research Collective and is the founder of the online peer support group – Facebook Postpartum Depression & Anxiety Support Group – with over 1500 members worldwide.


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