It’s Stress Awareness Week from 7-11 November, organised and led by the International Stress Management Association. This year’s theme is Working together to build resilience and reduce stress. I am a firm believer in changing workplace culture and systems. For me this is essential to build resilience in a wider sense. This in turn results in reduced stress for everyone. However, what is it about stress that keeps it ever present in our lives? What makes stress so alluring?
What is Stress?
Stress is a word that is widely used and well understood. However, it has different meanings and context for everyone. It’s far easier to speak about stress than mental-ill health. One reason being that stress usually comes from an external source. Whereas mental-ill health still carries stigma due to many thinking it’s a problem within the person.
We know that stress is a natural response when we feel in danger, whether physical or impending perceived work “dangers”. Let’s consider this in more detail.
Stress can be broken down into three types as follows:
Acute stress results from our body’s reaction to a new or challenging situation. It’s that short-lived feeling we all know well when we have to do something we don’t want to. Like taking an exam or going to that meeting we know is going to be challenging.
We can also experience acute stress related to something positive such as achieving an award or receiving a promotion, as it can feel overwhelming.
After the stressful event has passed, our adrenalin-fueled feelings and the body usually return to their normal state soon after the event.
2. Episodic Acute Stress
Episodic acute stress is when acute stresses (as outlined above) happen on a frequent basis. This could be due to family care responsibilities, being micro-managed at work via bullying emails or working in frontline crisis services.
With episodic stress there isn’t time to return to a relaxed state for longer periods of time. We are often concerned about the next crisis or negative event and how we will handle it. The result of these regular episodes of stress means the stress accumulates. We are essentially moving from one crisis to another.
3. Chronic Stress
As the name suggests this is ongoing stress with little to no reprieve. It can be systemic, so there isn’t always an easy way to change or “fix” the situation. For example living in unsafe and insecure housing, working in the gig-economy with little stability or ongoing caring responsibilities with no respite.
Clearly, feeling constant stress has a negative impact both physically and mentally. Stress has a significant impact on the body as the diagram below illustrates.
Episodic and chronic stress can play physical havoc in the body. Often we may speak to medical professionals about the ailments we have not realising the underpinning cause is stress-related.
Stress and Mental-Ill Health
I always say stress can be the first rung on the ladder to developing mental ill-health. We can also get used to the sensations and feelings of stress quite easily. Thinking this is how it has to be.
Indeed, stress is very common, with 1 in 6 British workers experiencing stress in any given year. A UK-wide stress survey carried out by the Mental Health Foundation found that 74% of UK adults have felt so stressed at some point over the last year they felt unable to cope.
This has become worse due to the external pressures we face managing the cost of living crisis, energy bills, food costs and the pressure to go back to face-to-face working.
What makes stress so alluring?
When we say we are stressed in the workplace it is often seen as a good thing, hence the allure. It means we are busy, productive and important, right? There is also an incredible amount of pressure on us to do more and be more. Especially women, who need to look a certain way, be healthy, be ideal partners and parents. Juggling all of this simply isn’t humanly possible.
There are many things that add to our stress levels, but are part of life. Hence why stress is integrated into the day-to-day and, as I phrased it so alluring.
1.Being attached to our devices
Technology can be extremely helpful. We can speak with friends and family members across the globe. In addition, we can also join support groups and converse with people we could never meet in real life. The flip side to this is that our phones especially have become an extension of us. Most of us are also on some form of social media which can lead to “comparisonitis”. We don’t feel we are good enough, so the stress cycle remains in motion.
- How might it feel to have a digital detox from your devices? Considering this, does it make you feel relieved or anxious?
This may seem leftfield, but air pollution, noise pollution and light pollution are everywhere. We are in fact experience stimuli overload. In turn there’s a constant source of stimulation and not necessarily in a positive way. The more light we’re exposed to at night, the more cortisol we produce. Cortisol is a stress hormone, thus keeping us awake. When we are producing cortisol, production of melatonin struggles, so we’re unable to fall asleep and stay asleep as well. Lack of sleep links to stress and stress recovery.
Exposure to sound levels above 85 decibels (dB) is considered damaging to human hearing. In residential environments noise exceeding 70 dB is disturbing. For quality sleep, noise levels at night should be around 30 dB. However, now all of can live in such quiet environments. This will also cause another source of stress.
Listen to this podcast episode: Do you wear stress as a badge of honour? (16 mins)
3. The Pressure to do it ALL!
There is so much pressure to keep up, see it all, do it all and push ourselves to achieve. While goals are useful and enable us to reach our potential, it shouldn’t feel like a never-ending to do list. Often there is a real sense of fear of missing out (FOMO) if we don’t do these things. Some examples include:
- Regular and constant promotions to leadership roles.
- Being a super parent and having everything sorted and organised.
- Making sure you have wonderful family holidays and post about this on social media.
- Taking the time to exercise, but not only that, running marathons, taking part in extreme triathlons and winning in the fitness arena.
- Have a beautiful home that you own in the right area, close to good schools.
The challenge is we can’t possibly do all of the above at the same time consistently. Life is cyclical and our focus shifts with our priorities and life stage.
The pressure to do it all, all the time is simply exhausting. Nevertheless this can be one of the root causes of stress and what makes stress so alluring.
- What difference would it make to your stress levels if you didn’t do everything all at once?
- How possible is this for you?
The individual vs the organisation
I am a firm believer in changing workplace culture and systems, so what can be done to create environments that empower, rather than encourage the allure of stress?
Do you send emails at all hours? Is this your preferred style of working? This may be the case, but do you know how this is received? It could leave your team panicked checking their emails (or worse WhatsApp) throughout the night. This may sound ridiculous, but so many people feel they have to respond to emails from senior colleagues straight away. If you are a night owl who enjoys working this way and gets lots done, I am not asking you to stop. What I am suggesting you do, is add a sentence to your signature like this:
“I send emails at all hours, but don’t expect you to respond out of hours. I look forward to hearing from you during your working hours”.
That, or schedule emails to be sent during working hours or even save them to your drafts folder and send manually when your colleagues are in work.
This sends the message that I appreciate your work-life balance as a manager or colleague. I respect the choices you chose to make whilst having my working preferences. It also means staff have boundaries and know what the expectations are.
2. Use the Health and Safety Executive Management Standards Tool
This is one of my favourite easy-to-use tools available. You can access it here. It enables managers to help identify work-related stressors in six key areas. This is done through a questionnaire that you and your team complete. The six Management Standards are (credit HSE website):
- Demands – this covers workload, work patterns and the work environment.
- Control – this relates to autonomy, so how much say the person has in the way they do their work.
- Support – this includes the encouragement, sponsorship and resources provided by the organisation, line management and colleagues.
- Relationships – this includes promoting positive working to avoid conflict and dealing with unacceptable behaviour.
- Role – whether people understand their role within the organisation and whether the organisation ensures that they do not have conflicting roles ( or indeed duplicating work in several areas of an organisation).
- Change – how organisational change (large or small) is managed and communicated in the organisation.
Getting feedback from your team to find out where the pinch points are means stressors can be managed in a proactive way. It enables you to have meaningful discussions about what is going well and what needs to be improved in a holistic way.
3. Recognise a job well done
When people are thanked for their work it builds rapport with managers and trust in the organisation. Staff who are appreciated are more likely to be engaged and motivated. Forward-thinking modern businesses know that staff happiness is the key to moral and financial success. To start with, recognition can be a simple thank you or praise at a 1-2-1 for a particular piece of work. It is a good idea to recognise staff during team meetings and away days in a public arena, with their permission.
People will feel appreciated and valued in different ways, we all have our preferences. If you want to find out more about your appreciation style and be mindful of others’ preferences, I recommend the book The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace by Gary Chapman. It outlines how supervisors and managers can effectively communicate appreciation and encouragement to their staff. If you are looking for innovative ways to show appreciation, 6Q lists 40 fun ways to say thank you.
What makes stress so alluring? Not changing the system and continuing things in the same way. Staff feel they have no choice but to carry on. Let’s make common sense, common practice.
Work with me
If you are a business leader and wants to proactively create healthy stress-reducing systems in your workplace get in touch with me to find out more.