In the 1980s, fuelled by rampant capitalism and consumerism, research in to the mortality rate of business leaders yielded many concepts and theories as to the cause of this apparent epidemic.
One of the most famous and regularly cited papers was published in 1987 by Cardiologists Meyer Friedman and Ray Rosenman. In their paper “Personality, Type A behaviour, and coronary heart disease: The role of emotional expression.”
In this paper, the authors segregated people in to two types:
- “Type A” – outgoing, ambitious, rigidly organised, highly status-conscious, sensitive, impatient, anxious, proactive, and concerned with time management.
- “Type B” – People with Type B personality tend to be more tolerant of others, are more relaxed than Type A individuals, more reflective, experience lower levels of anxiety and display a higher level of imagination and creativity. In other words, not Type A.
Type A’s and Heart Disease
And their paper examined, through research and testing over a period of 8 years, that Type A personalities are 58% more likely to develop coronary heart disease.
Amid a flurry of moral panic, arguments and counter-research, the concept of the Type A entered social consciousness, becoming an oft-referenced “thing” in business.
I’m not a doctor and can’t comment on the state of the typical Type A’s cardiovascular system, but in my experience, working in and with various businesses, the Type A’s by virtue of their characteristics tend to float towards the top of organisations. And they are also the least sensitive to their stress levels, and hence their ability to manage their wellbeing and avoid burnout.
Just the fact that you are in charge increases your stress levels. A study published in 2011 examined the stress levels of Alpha Males in Baboon Troops, and found that, despite the entire troop having the same diet, the stress levels of Alphas are significantly higher than other Baboons. The stress, they suggested, was probably because of the demands of fighting off challengers and guarding access to fertile females. Leaders in business may not have the fertility issue to deal with, but it is clear that the pressure of leadership sits squarely on the shoulders of our nervous system.
Why Type A’s are Baboons in Suits
This extra pressure seems to decrease the Alpha’s ability to detect their stress levels, and put in place techniques to manage it. This, of course, makes it more difficult to work with Type A’s, to help them continue to perform, rather than to be ignorant to stress until they fall sick or, fall over and die.
The trouble is, businesses need Type A’s. They are the drivers, the motors and pilots of successful businesses. A company full of Type B’s is unlikely to deliver the same shareholder value as the same company with Type A’s, although their turnover and absence levels are likely to be much lower.
So how can we have a Type A with a Type B approach to Stress and Wellbeing?
Gamification: Technology and Stress
Which is where technology comes in. One of the most effective ways to get Type A’s to learn about and manage their stress levels, whilst still allowing them to kick arse in the boardroom, is to leverage their innate competitiveness.
Gamification is the process of turning a relatively dull and repetitive process in to a game, with scoring. The fact that such a process has a score means that most Type A’s are immediately motivated by the thought of getting better.
So when I’m coaching Type A’s, technology allows me (a Type A with Type B stress approach) to actively compete with and challenge my clients to become better at Stress Management.
So I use the following devices to help them develop the skills that will keep them well whilst still having all the positive benefits of being a Type A.
Heartmath Inner Balance (HRV biofeedback)
Inner Balance uses your Heart Rate Variability (an accurate measure of your stress levels) to teach you breathing techniques whilst feeding back in real time the effect of using these techniques is having on your nervous system.
The App that comes with it records your scores and allows you to increase the challenge level, whilst it also allows your coach (me) to see your scores and offer tips and challenge you to improve.
I usually see improvements in my Client within a week, and if you’re suffering from burnout, you will feel a lot like your old self within a month by using the system for just 10 minutes a day.
It’s not cheap, retailing at £159 if you buy it directly, but I’ve never had anyone return one.
Muse 2 (EEG Neurofeedback)
Getting a Type A to meditate long enough to get benefits from it is an exercise in folly. Sitting still, doing nothing is almost completely the opposite of normal behaviour.
Even so, most Type A’s I speak to tell the same story. “I tried meditation but it just didn’t work for me.” or “It stressed me out even more.”
And as most people try it on their own, or with an App such as Mindfulness or Headspace, they don’t necessarily know if they are getting better, which is an essential measurement for Type A’s. “If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it” said W. Edwards Deming, a Type A legend.
Enter the Muse Headband. A portable, consumerised EEG (Electroencephalography) device, it measures your brain waves and feeds that back to with soundscapes through your headphones. Find yourself in a relaxed and focused state and you’ll hear the sounds of lapping waves and birds singing. The more jumbled your thinking, the stronger the waves become. It keeps reminding you to focus, and the results in just a week are astounding.
Add to this the fact that your performance is rated, and your coach (me) can see your scores, and you’ll feel the benefits in days rather than months. Muse have published numerous research papers on the impact that their technology has one wellbeing, which you can find here: https://choosemuse.com/muse-research/.
Whilst the Muse Headband does make you look a little like an extra from Star Trek, their technology is also integrated in to a smart pair of sunglasses called the Smith Lowdown Focus. So you can use them in public without attracting unwanted attention.
Oura (HRV, Sleep, Skin Temperature, Activity)
The Oura Ring takes a different approach and rather than provide you the real-time feedback necessary to improve the skills of self-regulation, it is like having a wellness coach sitting on your shoulder all day and night.
So the various metrics that this ingenious ring gathers are brought together to provide an overall measure of your resilience, which is a measure of how much stress you can take today before you push yourself in to bad places physically and mentally.
By bringing your Heart Rate Variability, Skin Temperature, Sleep and Activity levels together, and throwing some machine learning in the mix, it helps you develop a better understanding of what drains your batteries and, more importantly, how you can keep them topped up so you can perform when you need to.
The result is that clients actively manage their stress levels. If they’ve had a busy day and not enough sleep, they back off those Type A type evening activities – Crossfit changes to a recuperative swim and an earlier night.
Search on Kickstarter and Indiegogo and you’ll find dozens of new biofeedback ideas looking for funding. As the technology gets smaller and smarter, it will be the technology that gently nudges you in the right direction during the day that wins out. And in this respect, Oura is the pick of the bunch.
Because when we are stressed, our wellbeing takes a back seat, and we all need someone (or something) to look out for us and keep us well.
Friedman, Howard S., Booth-Kewley, Stephanie, 1987, “Personality, Type A behaviour, and coronary heart disease: The role of emotional expression”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
Gesquiere, Laurence R., Learn Niki H., M. Simao, Carolina M., Onyango, Patrick O., Alberts, Jeanne, 2011, “Life at the Top: Rank and Stress in Wild Male Baboons”, Journal of Science.
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About the Author
Matthew has years of experience working in and around high pressure work environments. He works with businesses to help them manage stress more effectively so that employees stay high performing and engaged so that they don’t burn out.
He only gets stressed when watching Arsenal.