We live in an increasingly complex, some would say a chaotic world. Rates of stress and burnout are increasing, perhaps driven by growing uncertainty and insecurity. Traditional approaches to these challenges have centred on stress management and resilience. Often stress management attempts to deal with the aftermath of stress. Resilience training aims to help people to bounce back, but these approaches are not sufficient.
Imagine a tea-candle placed on a table, outside in a garden. The air is still, the candle is burning steadily, but a breeze sweeps across the garden and extinguishes the flame. The candle has blown out.
Now imagine that the tea-candle is relit and placed inside a storm lantern. The breeze continues to blow across the garden, but the flame is not affected. The candle is protected inside the lantern.
Finally, imagine that you begin to build a fire-pit in the garden. You stack up logs and light kindling to start the fire burning—the weather changes. The breeze becomes a gentle wind. The wind stokes the fire. The flames grow and spread. Soon, the fire-pit roars into life, bringing light and warmth to the garden.
In part one of this blog series, we’ll begin to explore the concept of antifragility.
Systems which benefit from variability
In 2012, the author and mathematical statistician Nassim Taleb introduced the world to the concept of antifragility, in a popular book and academic paper (1). The story of the flame can be a useful metaphor to illustrate the principles of antifragility.
The tea-candle is fragile; it suffers from the variability of its environment beyond a certain threshold. When placed inside the storm lantern, the tea-candle is made robust. The changing environment does not harm the flame, but neither does it change in response to it. In contrast, the fire-pit is antifragile. The unpredictable wind fuels the flames in the fire-pit and increases their intensity. Anti-fragility describes systems like the fire-pit; systems which benefit from variability. Randomness, variation and uncertainties improve the system performance (2).
Antifragility in finance and beyond
Quantitative finance models apply the mathematical detection of anti-fragility to predict the ‘vega’ of an option contract. Vega is a measure of what will probably happen in the future and can be used to structure and price option contracts. Ideally, the calculation offers investors the potential to benefit from variability, whether the value of the underlying asset increases or decreases.
However, anti-fragility can equally be applied to biological systems. The biodiversity of our planet is one of the greatest examples of anti-fragility. Natural selection is established on the basis that some species gain a competitive advantage when environments change. Humans, our teams and our organisations also have the potential to be antifragile. This characteristic is becoming increasingly important in our complex, uncertain world.
Uncertainty is at an all-time high
Uncertainty in the global markets was at the highest point on record, even before the COVID-19 pandemic. The Economist magazine went as far to declare that “Uncertainty is a sort of poison.” (3)
At an individual level, uncertainty can lead to a feeling of disengagement in many people. Others fear failure and experience unhelpful levels as stress (4), which may account for the high and increasing rates of stress and burnout.
- 75% of adults report that they feel stressed (5).
- 12.8 million working days were lost in 2018/19 as a result of stress (6).
- Stressful work events predict 16% of health care costs (7).
- The prevalence of burnout in high-income countries among the general working population has been reported to range between 13 – 27% (8,9).
- High baseline burnout rates may exacerbate the acute stress posed by major unexpected, stressful events, increasing the risk of mental health injury (10).
The stress management sector is growing
Unsurprisingly, stress management is one of the fastest-growing sectors in the corporate wellbeing market, valued at $7.58bn in 2019 (11). The stress management sector is expected to continue to grow at a CAGR of 8.4% (12). However, according to some research, less than 40% of employees whose stress interferes with work talk to their employer about it (13. Of those people who talk about it, only 40% are offered some kind of support (13).
Many people try to cope on their own
- 31% report consuming more caffeine.
- 23% report taking over the counter or prescription medication.
- 20% report consuming more alcoholic beverages.
When people do seek help, 1 in 4 employees are referred to a mental health professional, but the most common approaches often involve sending employees to stress management or relaxation classes (13).
We are not addressing underlying issues
While a relaxation class is undoubtedly healthier than heading to the cocktail cabinet, both approaches fail to address the underlying issues. Relaxation is valuable and essential, but it’s the equivalent of putting the tea-candle into a storm lantern. Trying to insulate ourselves from stressful feelings with alcohol is akin to placing the candle into the lantern and closing the vents. It will protect the flame from the wind for a time, but eventually, the lack of oxygen will snuff it out.
Neither approach fundamentally improves the ability to respond to or benefit from uncertainty. The candle is still fragile, and this can leave us feeling like we are always playing catch-up, forever relighting the metaphorical candle when it blows out, or fearing the gust of wind that is coming next. As the Wall Street Journal put it in the context of business leadership; “Uncertainty is the monster that lives under the bed of every CEO” (14).
It shouldn’t be this way. Uncertainty does not have to be a monster, and stress is not always something from which we should try to insulate ourselves. Humans have an incredible capacity to adapt and grow in the face of challenges, physiological, psychologically and at an organisational level.
This blog is the first in a series on the concept of antifragility, and how we could apply it individually, and in our teams. You can read the next blog in this series, here.
1. Taleb NN, Douady R. Mathematical definition, mapping, and detection of (anti)fragility. Quant Finance. 2013;13(11):1677–89.
2. Aven T. The concept of antifragility and its implications for the practice of risk analysis. Risk Analysis. 2015;35(3):476–83.
3. The Economist. Trade uncertainty is at its highest point on record. The Economist. 2019;
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5. American Psychological Association. Stress in America: Stress and current events. Stress Am Surv [Internet]. 2019;(November):1–47. Available from: https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/stress/2013/stress-report.pdf
6. HSE. Work-related stress, depression or anxiety in Great Britain, 2018. 2018;(October):1–10. Available from: http://www.hse.gov.uk/statistics/causdis/stress/index.htm
7. Hassard J, Teoh K, Cox T, Dewe P, COSMAR M, Gründler R, et al. Calculating the cost of work-related stress and psychosocial risks. Literature Review, European Risk Observatory. 2014. 0–41 p.
8. Lindblom KM, Linton SJ, Fedeli C, Bryngelsson IL. Burnout in the working population: Relations to psychosocial work factors. Int J Behav Med. 2006;13(1):51–9.
9. Norlund S, Reuterwall C, Höög J, Lindahl B, Janlert U, Birgander LS. Burnout, working conditions and gender – Results from the northern Sweden MONICA Study. BMC Public Health. 2010;10.
10. Restauri N, Sheridan AD. Burnout and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder in the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) Pandemic: Intersection, Impact, and Interventions. J Am Coll Radiol [Internet]. 2020;17(7):921–6. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jacr.2020.05.021
11. Research GV. Workplace Stress Management Market Size | Industry Report, 2026 [Internet]. [cited 2020 Jul 4]. Available from: https://www.grandviewresearch.com/industry-analysis/workplace-stress-management-market
12. Research GV. Workplace Stress Management Market Worth $ 13.38 Billion By 2026 [Internet]. [cited 2020 Jul 4]. Available from: https://www.grandviewresearch.com/press-release/global-workplace-stress-management-market
13. ADAA. Workplace Stress & Anxiety Disorders Survey [Internet]. 2006. Available from: https://adaa.org/workplace-stress-anxiety-disorders-survey
14. Stoll JD. Hey CEOs, Have You Hugged the Uncertainty Monster Lately? The Wall Street Journal. 2019;