Rapid Role Switching: an Unlikely Source of Stress

Most are aware of the top sources of stress: death of a loved one, marriage difficulties, loss of a job. Many of us have experienced some or all of them and we know the stress that it can put on our lives. However, I’ve discovered a very unlikely source of stress that used to cause me undue hardship until I understand why it was happening and how to deal with it: rapid role switching.

I lovingly refer to multi-tasking as “the art of doing many things poorly.” We get the mistaken impression that if you’re attending to many things at once, you can get more things accomplished. Unfortunately, many studies show that quickly switching from one assignment to the next degrades the attention that you give each one. As a result, each of the tasks, if accomplished at all, returns results that are worse than if each had your complete focus before moving onto the next. While we have many tasks and roles to attend to, each should get its proper attention and priority.

In my personal life, I have many roles to play: husband, father, brother, son, friend. When I add professional roles, this list gets to be quite long. Each of these roles is truly me but a different version of me. Each of my audience members has different expectations based upon our unique relationship as defined by the role.

Years ago, I remember complaining to my wife about feeling stressed out after coming home from a visit to my parents. It was a lovely summer day and my girls were playing in the pool while my wife and I chatted with my folks. My younger brother and his wife were also over and we all had a very nice dinner. However, by the end of the day, I was mentally and emotionally exhausted. Not a cross word had been said as I come from a very close and affectionate family, but I just felt drained. It wasn’t until the next day, when I reviewed what had happened, that I came upon a startling discovery. My source of stress came from constantly trying to switch between husband, father, brother, and son. I was trying to be all things to all people, all of the time. It wasn’t the multiple roles that I gladly play, it was my attempt to frequently move between them.

Years later, I decided to try my theory out to help my wife. My father-in-law was in hospice dying from lung cancer. My wife, daughters, and I flew out to Colorado to be with him and my mother-in-law. As his final moments were closing, I told my wife that I was going to take the girls and their cousin out for awhile. Her role would be isolated to daughter; she wouldn’t be able to try on the mother, wife, or aunt roles. As she thanked me later, this isolation of duties made the final hours easier by relieving some stress.

A few months after that, one of my team had to quickly leave work as her mother was in a similar circumstance in hospice. I told her to first be aware of the potential for significant stress by switching roles between daughter, sister, mother, and wife. She wanted to take her computer to get work done but I would only permit it with two conditions. She could deliberately switch to her employee role when it would help alleviate stress from her other roles and she had to physically remove herself. She couldn’t try to be an employee in the same room as her family.

When she returned to work, she was still naturally grieving for the loss of her mother, but she was grateful. She explained that when it was getting to be too much to be with her family, she went into a conference room and did work. It really helped her get her mind off of things and let her get something accomplished. When she was done with work, she went back to her family refreshed and ready to be a comfort to them. Each of her roles served a deliberate purpose for her.

Stress impacts all of us to varying degrees. Some can walk into a burning building with anticipation while others break down because a text message took longer than fifteen seconds to show up. It may be a team member’s stress level which is most directly affecting you and your team even if you’ve got everything together.

As an Intimate Proximity leader, you know that your team and their well-being is your responsibility. Help them to understand that rapidly switching roles can be a hidden source of stress. By limiting the number of roles they take on at a time, focusing on one role at a time, and making deliberate switches between the roles, they will thank you for making a positive impact on their mental well-being.