The 4th Industrial Revolution: Camouflaged Stress

The infamous Vladimir Lenin once said that “There are decades where nothing happens, and there are weeks where decades happen.” While we aren’t pushing the envelope of punctuated equilibrium, his words are relevant. We are undeniably in a time of accentuated change at work.[1] The disruptions of the fourth Industrial Revolution in a host of industries are only now getting rolling. On top of that, the digitalisation of work has been accelerated due to worldwide lockdowns and travel bans. All this and a slew of other contributing factors make for a time of severe social, technological and political changes.

I want to devote a few posts to exploring some soft skills and themes that South Africans may benefit from in the 4th Industrial Revolution. I want employers and employees to thrive and maintain our humanity during this upheaval. This first post will focus on identifying camouflaged stress.

Excessive change causes stress in people. And South Africans are surprisingly stressed out, especially since the COVID outbreak[2]. Stress is not necessarily a negative thing though. It is a fantastic motivator and is our bodies’ natural self-defence to difficult situation. Illustrated at its most primal, when see the lion, run away. Stress can be bad though. Stress has a long-term destructive effect on the body. Especially when it is persistent and isn’t alleviated with periods of rest. The human body easily caves into that type of pressure. This theme will be fleshed out more.

One (unfortunate) key attribute of the 4th Industrial Revolution is the blurring of reality. Biology, technology and augmented reality will be merging in new and unexpected ways[3]. This means that at work, our lion is shapeless. There is no distinction between work and life, work hours and relaxing, or login in and logging out. Stress becomes persistent, unfocused and mounting. You’re at home, overloaded with notifications, without a fixed guideline for when to stop working. But if you stop, the constant stream of work (that lion) gets you. And with the progress of the 4th IR, many stressors will become more persistent, pervasive and undefined.

How do we solve this?

Before we can even talk about coping, the first critical skill is to accurately identify the nature of your stressor[4]. Unfocused or unclear stressors heap up and may cause disproportionate effects on people if misappraised! Here we are not concerned about everyday problems like power-failures or flat tyres. Rather, it is the parts of life that are abstract or boundaryless that we want to address and learn how to identify.

A good starting point is to delineate stress. I usually start by writing my stressor out in terms of three categories, namely: internal, external and philosophical stress. Take doing a presentation as an example, we’ve all felt the pressure of having to speak in front of people. What causes stress in these three categories?

Now, let’s take something more abstract: You have to create a process in an area of work that you’ve never worked in before: What internal, external and philosophical stressors can you identify yourself?

By delineating the stressor in terms of categories, its characteristics start to take shape. Its size, weight, proportion and importance come into view. The process eliminates misconceptions and distortions in your perception of reality. After writing the causes of stress out, you then start interrogating them one by one. This is done by asking yourself questions about it. For example: What can I do about it? What is in my control? How important will this be to me in 6 months’ time? What is the worst that can happen to me? Where can I get help?

It could be, for example, that the problem is exclusive to one category. This information alone can provide much needed perspective. Once you have your stressor in clearer view, you can go about facing it well — a topic that we will be exploring with helpful techniques in future posts. Next up, we’ll take a deeper dive into stress itself. Stay tuned!



[1] Shaw, W. S., Main, C. J., Findley, P. A., Collie, A., Kristman, V. L., & Gross, D. P. (2020). Opening the workplace after COVID-19: what lessons can be learned from return-to-work research?. [2] [3] [4] Lazarus, R. S., Folkman, S., 1984. Stress Appraisal and Coping. New York: Springer

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