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The Stressed GRC Professional

Thursday 16 February 2017

How much stress can GRC professionals take?

by Bob Murray

Josh, the risk and compliance director of a major listed company, a nervous breakdown yesterday. Not an unusual occurrence for a risk professional. He was taken to hospital and will be off work for a few months. He will return to work and almost certainly will suffer from another breakdown, or have a heart attack, or become diabetic, become suicidal or develop PTSD in the not-too-distant future.
GRC professionals are not the most depressed, they only rank number 20 on the depression scale of major professions (firemen, farmers and forestry workers top the list). But they are among the most stressed, and that is increasing. 80% of them say that their job is too stressful.

How much stress can we take? The answer is that it varies from person to person, stage of life to stage of life, context to context. Any living system needs a certain amount of stress to function optimally and for each there is a limit. A tree will bend in the stress of wind, but if the wind is too strong it will snap. Just like a human being when the pressure is too great, when, like the tree in a fierce storm, we exceed our design specs.

There are a lot of fairly simple and inexpensive things that firms could do to reduce the amount of stress among their staff. For the most part they won’t, mostly they don’t at present see it as part of their survival strategy. So what can you as an individual do?

Well you could take up yoga, or meditation, or mindfulness, long walks or sex. They’re all good de-stressors. They all work, at least temporarily. They’re all good for you. But the stress will return after each because they’re not getting at the core problem.

Stress is caused by the genes controlling the stress hormone cortisol being signaled by the fear center of the brain, the amygdala (by a slightly roundabout route). Cortisol gets the sympathetic nervous system (the flight, fright and freeze response) going. It makes the heart beat faster, it clears the mind to concentrate on nothing but the stressor. Good for confronting cheetahs, snakes, rogue elephants and client deadlines but only over the short term.

In the longer term, if the stress continues, the heart and other organs involved (lungs etc.) give up and the system collapses.

But the human system has a number of genetic stress busters which can be called upon to mitigate the damage and bring back some sort of life-saving equilibrium. The main ones are:

  • A nexus of supportive relationships. We are essentially relationship-driven creatures, largely because in our hunter-gatherer state we were defenseless without them. In many ways stress is, like depression, a cry for help. If that cry is answered, if our support network is able and willing to rally around us we can endure far higher levels of stress. Working as a mutually supportive team, for example, is far less stressful than working alone.
  • A sense of purpose. This is something that I am currently writing a book about for the Ark Group. Recent research has shown that having a strong sense of purpose, especially a sense of social as opposed to familial or personal, purpose strengthens the working of the ventral striatum in reducing stress and “turning down” the activity of the amygdala. Pursuing familial purpose alone (as many of us do when we “put family first”) can actually elevate stress. Individual purpose—for example creating the best stamp collection in the world—does little to reduce overall stress except for the time you’re actually pursuing it.
  • Time in Nature. We have a genetic need to be connected to Nature. Even being in a park for 20 minutes a day, for example, can reduce the symptoms of PTSD in children.[i] Having potted plants in the office can reduce depression. And the stress reduction properties of regular walks in natural surroundings is a WOW!
  • A loving pet. The curative power of domestic pets—especially dogs—has been long known. Dog owners live up to 5 years longer and research has shown that this is because of the stress-busting power of just being with the dog[ii]. And stroking a cat has been shown to reduce heart rate and blood pressure—signs that cortisol is losing control of the system.[iii]
  • Creative endeavor. Recent studies have shown that engaging in art, creative writing or other similar pursuit can enormously reduce stress in the short and long term.[iv] One study said that the happiest people are those that indulge in one creative activity daily.

Recent studies also recommend:
  • Living and/or working in a low-rise building
  • Living and working away from a busy road
  • Taking public transport (especially a train) to work
  • Eating six small meals a day not three big ones (even better: do without meals per se and just snack when you’re hungry).
  • Avoiding flying (I wish!)
  • Eating oily fish (tuna, salmon etc.)
  • Avoiding sugar and over two glasses of alcohol

Even GRC professionals are not powerless over their stress.

[i] For more on this see Bob Murray, Alicia Fortinberry “Raising an Optimistic Child” McGraw-Hill, 2005
[ii] Research cited in “Dog Care and Training” Carina Macdonald, 2009


Dr Bob Murray, Co-founder of Fortinberry Murray

Dr Bob Murray is a co-founder of the international consultancy
Fortinberry Murray. He is the author of 10 books. The latest, published
this month, is “Leading the Future” (Ark Publications), co-authored
with Dr Alicia Fortinberry. He works with Global 500 companies,
Governments and major professional service firms in Asia, the US,
Europe as well as Australia. He can be contacted at