According to HSE.Gov.co.uk almost one million people (976,000) in the UK are suffering from work-related stress that is making them ill, resulting in sick leave and absenteeism. It is estimated that 12 million working days are lost each year in the UK due to stress-related illness.
What is stress?
The dictionary defines stress as “ a forcibly exerted influence usually causing distress or strain.” In short, stress is any factor, positive or negative that requires a response or change. Medical research recognizes that chronic ongoing stress can lead to illness, aggravate existing disease conditions and accelerate aging. Common stressors include many aspects of a Western lifestyle including work, financial, emotional and environmental issues, as well as a nutrient poor diet that inflicts undue stress on your physical and mental bodies.
The concept of job stress is often confused with challenge. Clearly these concepts are not the same. Challenge, if at the appropriate level, energizes both mind and body. It motivates to learn new skills and master new and more challenging job roles. When a challenge is met, we feel relaxed and satisfied, proud and perhaps even excited about what has been achieved.
When does a challenge become stressful?
This is a bit like asking “How long is a piece of string?” As each one of us are different and unique, there cannot be a one-size fits all answer. However, there are some aspects in the Western lifestyle and work ethic that can and do contribute to an individual suffering from work-related stress. For example, when the goal cannot be achieved because it looks and feels overwhelming or when demands cannot be met, due to capability and or lack of necessary resources. It might, on the other hand, be caused by relationships, or more importantly poor relations with someone that you have to work with, due to their bullying, manipulating habits. Perhaps you are working in a toxic environment due to poor or inappropriate leadership that is causing an overly competitive work environment, playing one person off against the other. Under any of these circumstances or a combination of circumstances, very quickly the situation can change from focused and motivated to mental and physical exhaustion from trying and the sense of ability to accomplish turned into feelings of stress.
COVID and work stress
Post Covid society is going to be looking at millions of people who have been affected negatively by the lockdown processes and are now suffering a variety of mental and likely physical illnesses due to measures brought in to limit the spread, by the many governments all over the world. Many are living under an umbrella of fear that has been working away at healthy people, slowly destroying immune capability through increasing stress caused by the fear of catching SARS-Cov-2. Not being able to “vent steam” through sport, visiting family and friends has blocked the usual avenues of lessening impact of negative events or at least balancing them with laughter and joy through regular social contact, touching, hugging and face to face conversation in close proximity to those we love. No one anticipated that by protecting one group of vulnerable people, you create another. A model created by the “Centre for Mental Health” last year predicted that, due to Covid, around 8.5 million adults and 1.5 million children in England alone will need support for anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorders and other mental health difficulties in the coming months and years.
What are the symptoms of stress?
Early symptoms include tiredness and lack of energy, tension headaches, and poor sleep, with perhaps even dizziness, stomach cramps, diarrhoea and migraines. When stress becomes more ingrained and bordering on or causing adrenal overload, these symptoms are still evident, but become stronger and more constant, and are often joined by other symptoms including, sweaty hands and feet, insomnia, circulating thoughts, nightmares, inability to get back to sleep, mood swings, anxiety attacks, stomach pains, heart burn and palpitations, depression and if that’s not enough - a permanent feeling of being exhausted all the time.
Subjecting the body to constant stress means the fight and flight system is no longer able to turn off. This is the balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. In other words, your body is in a constant state of alert, whether there is danger or not. Stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol are released which sends blood to the areas of the body that most need it including the heart and muscles in order to get you away from the immediate danger. When the perceived fear has gone, the hypothalamus should tell the system to go back to normal, but when constantly under stress this system becomes incapable of regulation resulting in excess cortisol and adrenaline, flooding the system causing the many symptoms mentioned.
Waiting for anyone to heal you is going to be a long wait. Life throws many curve-balls at each one of us that we have no control over, however there is much that you can do to manage the impact by building resilience. The only person who can be responsible for your health is you. As stress has deep impact on both the mental and physical body, it is important to put some simple steps in place to limit the impact and build your resilience before it becomes a permanent feature that requires intervention by a health expert. Often these interventions use pharmaceutical products that mask the symptoms so that you can live with them, continuing the same lifestyle pattern and avoiding dealing with the actual problem.
5 Simple Steps to Proactively Managing the Impact of Stress
Assuming the stress factors are work-related the following are some helpful tips for proactively protecting you from adverse stress as well as managing the body’s reaction in the early stages through re-balancing your natural circadian rhythm through life experience – your diet, lifestyle and physical movement.
1. Practice good sleep hygiene:
Be in bed by 10.30pm
Make your bedroom a “no zone” for electronic devices
Keep the bedroom dark and free from electric or “blue” light
A minimum of two hours before going to bed:
Stop using all electronic devices in order to calm the brain and allow it to produce sleep-inducing melatonin. Read, meditate, take a warm bath with calming essential oils or simply share relaxation time with your family instead.
Complete any vigorous exercise and allow the body time to calm down and relax to avoid lying awake trying to go to sleep.
Eat your last meal allowing time for complete digestion.
Drink a cup of calming herbal tea such as Lime Blossom, Chamomile, Lemon Melissa and/or Lavender before retiring
2. Be assertive:
Know your limits and practice saying “No” when the boss or a colleague becomes over-demanding.
Openly and positively confront those who have taken it upon themselves to make your life stressful.
Deal with conflict, don't push it under the carpet hoping it will go away
Speak up for yourself – share your opinion, ideas and feelings before they become overwhelming. It is alright to feel how you feel, just because it might be different to how others are feeling, does not make it wrong.
Avoid procrastination in all areas of your life as it does not positively serve you.
3. Practice positive self-talk and habits:
Observe how you speak to yourself and avoid negative self-talk that emphasizes what is not right about yourself, what you have done wrong, what you should or could have done in any particular situation and so on. Negative self-talk is destructive and only creates further mental pressure to be or do something differently. It does not provide a positive framework to change the aspect of your behaviour or performance that you are not happy about.
Express gratitude daily for those things in your life that you are grateful for. Find a time of the day that is convenient, such as first thing in the morning or last thing at night to give gratitude for the small things in your life, that make a big difference.
4. Make time for yourself:
Rushing around accomplishing things and crossing them off the to-do list can be very satisfying, but it does not feed body and soul. All of us require down-time to do what feeds our soul, whether that is doing nothing, walking, meditating, taking a hot bath or lying on your sofa reading.
Schedule down-time for yourself each week even if it is only for 30 minutes twice a week, this is your time and is as important, if not more so, than many other things on your to-do list. Keep to it!
Educate and encourage others to respect this time as being sacred.
Enjoy space and silence.
5. Be active and move
The body and mind becomes stagnant, as does your energy when you sit all day in front of a computer, television or on the sofa. This can often lead to circulating thoughts which go round and round with no route of escape. By moving you energize the body by getting lymph moving, while also feeding the brain with serotonin (feel good factor), especially if going out into nature. Build time into your day to move, even if that is get a cuppa or walk to the corner shop. Periodic stretching away from your computer also helps increase energy and resilience.
Moving does not need you to run a marathon, but rather to do regular exercise whether walking, Pilates, Yoga, swimming or playing tennis to release any pent up emotions that are stiffening up the neck and shoulder muscles, your back and overall flexibility. Connecting with nature as you do your favourite exercise brings double benefit to mind and body.
Taking a massage or doing reflexology regularly also has many beneficial effects in relaxing the body, promoting energy through effective movement of lymph and keeping muscles toned, overall helping to manage stressful events and build resilience.
Engaging in a balance of activities, being mindful of what you eat and how you eat, allowing time for space and silence, connecting with nature, building in time for human interaction and connection and movement combined with increased assertion helps to improve health by resyncing your physical and mental bodies.
To find out how to improve you or your team’s workplace stress, see our E-learning courses for Wellbeing in the Workplace.
NEW HERE? RACHEL WRITES ABOUT LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT, COMMUNICATION AND CUSTOMER EXCELLENCE, INCLUDING HEALTH AND WELL-BEING AT WORK. YOU CAN READ SIMILAR BLOGS HERE: