Guest Contributor Bill Jenkins
People often believe that stress is to be expected and is unavoidable. While this may be true during natural disasters and other events we cannot avoid or control, for example, interpersonal stress is always avoidable.
As groomers, we work hard. Our job is physically laborious but also highly skilled. Most challenging of all for us may be that, unlike the work most other people do, we work on live animals—real, living, breathing dogs who have minds, bodies and wills of their own. They don’t always do what we want or need them to do, and grooming can be stressful for them, as well as for us.
Stress can build up as our day progresses, grooming multiple pets with a variety of issues. Workplace stress is common everywhere in our society, but in our case, as groomers who work with live animals and sharp tools, stress can be a dangerous safety issue as well.
It seems at times that humans are resigned to and even incorporate stress into our daily lives. People often believe that stress is to be expected and is unavoidable. While this may be true during natural disasters and other events we cannot avoid or control, for example, interpersonal stress is always avoidable. All we need to do is intentionally treat each other with greater kindness, compassion, consideration and professionalism.
EUSTRESS AND DISTRESS
Interestingly, stress has only been studied rigorously since the mid-1980s, so there is much good, new information. Twentieth-century scholar Hans Selye, a Canadian endocrinologist and founder of the Stress Theory, first articulated two kinds of stress: Eustress, or positive stress; and Distress, or negative stress. The first is motivating and energizing, the other is destructive and beyond tolerable levels. This graph of the inverted “U” shape is widely used as a visual representation of how stress works (Fig 1).
Dr. Herbert Benson, writing in The Relaxation Response in 1975, described the critical importance of relaxation to general health and reducing stress in our daily lives. He first identified the now increasingly well-understood connection between stress and physical problems, disorders and even disease in our bodies.
THE WARNING SIGNS OF NEGATIVE STRESS
It is important to pay attention to these signs of distress, or negative stress, in your life and in your work:
- A “gut feeling” that something is not right. These signals are recognized subconsciously and may save you from a nasty bite or injury.
- Exhaustion, tiredness and distraction.
- Lack of pro-social interaction. We become more non-social when focused on a task. This helps us focus but can lead to grumpiness, aggression and being easily frustrated.
- Too much adrenaline in our systems that can speed up our activity level but reduce good judgment and fine-motor control. When sharp tools and live animals are combined with excess energy, there is increased potential for accidents and injury.
All of these are indications that our crisis response system is activating at low levels and may be getting out of control. The more stress we feel, the more our minds and bodies will want to push back against the demands of our environment.
This process typically begins with a strong emotional response. We may snap at a co-worker, or at a dog. We may handle a dog roughly because we want them to comply. We can get frustrated when dogs are uncooperative—especially when we are in a hurry. We may also become louder and more forceful when talking to other people or the dog. This, added to other natural stress triggers like loud noises from barking dogs and blow dryers, can cause physical responses; our muscles tense up, leading to musculoskeletal injuries or pain.
THE SCIENCE IS CLEAR
Research into the way dogs read our facial muscles, our voices and our emotions is advancing our understanding of the way our two co-evolved species communicate with and affect each other. One example of this important new field of study is the work by Annika Huber, et al. in a study published in 2017 showing that dogs “feel in contagion” or engage in “emotional state matching” with humans.
All mammals have “mirror neurons” which are brain cells that react to what they observe, leading experts to call these cells the neurological basis for empathy. Humans and dogs have the closest interspecies communication and connection of any two distinct species on the earth. The physiological reality of all this has been proven in repeated studies, including those of Dr. Gregory Berns of Emory University, using MRI equipment on both people and dogs.
Have you noticed how when you are the busiest in your grooming day—with client deadlines, ringing phones and a large volume of dogs to complete—that is when the dogs behave the worst? The science is clear. Dogs read and react to our stress. When we get stressed, the dogs get stressed. When we relax, the dogs are better able to relax as well.
Stress positions are holding any non-ergonomic physical posture for an extended time such as bending over for too long, holding an unsupported weight (like a dog or equipment) and pulling against a dog’s resistance. All of this puts wear and tear on our muscles and joints.
Stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline literally wear out the human body and brain when they are present for extremely long periods of time at high levels. When adrenaline levels go up, the thinking part of our brains shuts down. Clumsiness and loss of fine-motor control can result, and we start making mistakes and exercising bad judgment.
Stress can also lead to lack of a normal appetite. We often work straight through the day, skipping meals because we are not hungry. Since stressed bodies do not get hungry until they relax, after work, we are starving. Our relaxation system kicks back in (finally!), our digestive system comes back online, and we do what my healthier eating program calls “fog eating” and other unhealthy indulgences. In this habit, our bodies do not get the regular nutrition they need for good health.
HOW TO ADDRESS THE STRESS
1. Learn to relax. The most effective athletes and workers who do repetitive work, like dancers, musicians or groomers, are most effective at our jobs when our bodies are totally relaxed. People who master this have the longest careers and are less susceptible to burnout.
2. Relaxation also has to be mental. We not only have to have confidence in our work but also enjoy our work, if we can. Take a deep breath. Look at the good things you are doing for the dog rather than seeing grooming as just a paycheck. This is the one thing that we groomers really have that is special; we work in a positive job caring for dogs and other pets. Many people envy our ability to spend this kind of intimate time with these amazing creatures.
3. Foster an environment of safety, relaxation, positivity and support. This is the responsibility of the shop owner or manager; however, if you groom alone, think about ways that you can foster these things in your personal work environment. We need to define and take our breaks during the day. Besides being the law, people who do not rest make mistakes and have accidents. Worker productivity declines and risk of injury and liability increases.
4. Quiet is best. I realize how hard this can be in some grooming environments, but the stress science is clear—the environment should be as quiet as possible. Shouting and other loud noises automatically trigger the crisis response system. I addressed this in my own grooming salon by putting all high-velocity drying in a separate room with high-quality hearing protection for my staff. Some choose to listen to relaxing music in ear buds under the protective headphones.
5. Relax your breathing. Stand or sit up straight and use good posture. One must have a straight back and good posture to breathe correctly. Hunching over cuts off two-thirds of lung capacity. Shallow, fast breathing triggers the crisis response system, while slow, deep breathing relaxes it. Here’s a tip: Do not pay attention to the position of your shoulders. Focus on creating a natural “S”-shaped curve in your lower back. You will no longer be able to hunch your shoulders and when you breathe, you can breathe with your whole lung volume using your diaphragm.
6. If you have co-workers, listen to their feedback. Are you starting to look or act stressed? Is your animal handling getting a little rough? Are you getting frustrated? Co-workers can work together to help each other monitor stress. Talk about this in the shop so everyone will be more stress-aware, and do not stress-shame your co-workers. You have no idea what other stressors they may be dealing with.
TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF
Most of all, we need to take care of our bodies—and not just at work. We owe this not only to the dogs and clients, but we owe it to ourselves. When possible, we have to reduce and prevent outside stressors from overflowing into the workplace—that is the mark of a true professional.
We need to not only eat well, get a good night’s sleep, relax when we can and take vacations, we also need to care for our emotional selves with gratitude and finding joy.
Professor Bill Jenkins says, “Stress results from being in an environment where there is high demand and very low control. In order to reduce that stress, we need to reduce the environmental demand, or raise our level of control over that environment, preferably both.” This is a message to bosses and employees alike.
Finally, we should use healthy stress-coping strategies—not resorting to cigarettes, alcohol or other drugs, either over-the-counter or otherwise. A healthy sleep begins with a fairly early and routine bedtime. Eat three healthy meals a day. Rest. Relax. Breathe deeply. Repeat good habits until they become a lifestyle. Get support and listen to feedback. Prioritize your health. Monitor and manage your stress.
Most of all, de-stress your life by being present in each moment and give yourself the gift of enjoying your work! ✂️