How can you deal effectively with work-related stress?

26 April 2017 • 4 min reading time

During missions, military personnel have to operate under physically and mentally demanding conditions. Life-threatening situations, physical exhaustion, boredom, helplessness or a feeling that life is meaningless can all give rise to stress. TNO developed the Coping Flexibility training course in response to a request from the Ministry of Defence. This course gives military personnel the extra tools needed to help them deal with stressful situations effectively.

TNO’s Training and Performance Innovations department (T&PI) focuses on areas such as high performance empowerment. This involves strengthening the mental and cognitive components of professionals who are required to perform under demanding conditions. An important element here is boosting mental resilience. Mental preparation of this kind is an integral part of our armed forces’ military training. Each branch of the armed forces tackles this in its own way, based on tradition and experience.

Fit for life

The Ministry of Defence wanted greater uniformity, and it also wanted to know which training methods were effective – so TNO was asked to look into this matter. The ensuing investigation resulted in the Coping Flexibility training course (abbreviated to the Coping Flex training course). This course is based on the best practices of armed forces in the Netherlands and throughout the world, as well as on the latest scientific findings. The training course has also been validated in military practice. It can be used to support servicemen and women throughout their entire military career: from selection, education and training to deployment, returning to civilian life, and the period thereafter. In other words, entirely ‘Fit for life’.

“Those who had taken the Coping Flex training course were better able to recognize stress (and their reactions to it) in themselves and in others. Their platoons showed greater cohesion”

Preferred strategies

When attempting to boost people’s mental resilience, coping flexibility is a major leverage point. This involves equipping them with a broad repertoire of coping behaviours – ways of dealing with stress. “Such coping behaviour differs significantly from one person to another”, says Marjoleine ’t Hart, a Senior Technical Consultant at T&PI. “Everyone has their own preferred strategies, which are shaped by a combination of factors such as personality, upbringing, culture and work culture. Some are inclined to first investigate the cause of the problem, in an attempt to understand what is going on. Others prefer to talk about it and to seek support from friends. Then there are those who just go for a run. But what if the problem doesn’t have a solution? Or if there is no-one you can talk to about it?”

Expanding your own repertoire

“Look, if you don’t have any alternative strategies to fall back on, this can result in helplessness, frustration, poor performance, and delays in recovering from stressful experiences. Yet servicemen and women need to maintain peak performance. Over the long term, they also need to stay healthy and motivated. For this reason, it is wise to have a range of coping strategies at your disposal. Our Coping Flex training course is designed to meet this need, and to make people better able to choose the appropriate strategy in any given situation. Flexibility is a fundamental requirement for all military personnel. If one approach doesn’t work, try another. If hammers and screwdrivers won’t do the trick, then you’ve still got the carpenters’ pincers and water pump pliers. In this way, coping flexibility helps you to stop stress taking over your life.”

“Flexibility is a fundamental requirement for all military personnel. If one approach doesn’t work, try another”

Coping snapshot

TNO has defined sixteen individual coping strategies, which it has classified into the following main categories: ‘Tackling the problem’, ‘Coping with emotion’, ‘Seeing things differently’, and ‘Working together’. At the start of the training course, each participant fills in a short questionnaire. Their answers are translated into a personal ‘coping snapshot’. This is a visual representation of the serviceman’s/servicewoman’s coping repertoire, highlighting those strategies they often use, and those they do not. This gives each participant an insight into their own coping style, as well as their strengths and areas for development. Armed with this knowledge, they can then start expanding their repertoire. The training course assists them with this, and it is also designed to help them realize when they have become stuck, and to help them identify the right course of action for that situation.

Better able to recognize stress

The Coping Flex training course was validated in a field experiment carried out at the Royal Military Academy as part of the training programme for non-commissioned army officers. Three 50-strong student platoons completed this training course as part of their regular military training. Another three platoons only received regular military training. After completing their training, these groups were compared. Those who had taken the Coping Flex training course were better able to recognize stress (and their reactions to it) in themselves and in others. Ms ‘t Hart adds that, “Their platoons also showed greater cohesion. In addition to supporting one another, they were more active in seeking help themselves.” Both the instructors and the course participants were very enthusiastic about the Coping Flex training course. They even recommended that all military personnel be required to take this course. This was one of the factors that prompted the Ministry to introduce this training course at various defence establishments.

“We have a toolbox that contains a wide range of training elements. Individual packages, each individually tailored to a separate target group”

From police to politicians

Various parties outside the Ministry of Defence have also expressed an interest. TNO has discussed this course with the police and with youth care services, and training courses of this kind have already been given to firefighters. “However, you do need to fine tune the training course to the specific needs of each individual target group”, says Marjoleine ’t Hart. “We have a sort of toolbox that contains a wide range of training elements. Individual packages, each individually tailored to a separate target group. Customized training courses, in other words. In the same way, we can set up a training course for ambulance staff, railway workers, and even our top politicians – individual ministers sometimes find themselves coming under attack from all sides.”

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