Today (7th November) is Stress Awareness Day - so we have pulled together some of our tips on how to spot and manage stress.
You’ve been irritable, working extra hours and been finding it difficult to concentrate on one thing at a time. But you’re not stressed, you are just busy and having people telling you to take a break is making you even more irritable. Do they not understand how much has to be done? Yes, you have a backache and a headache from clenching your jaw, but that will go away with some pain-killers.
Does any of this sound familiar? Did you know that these are actually all signs of stress?
What’s more, stress directly impacts our health. In the workplace, the effect of stress on employees can greatly impact the wider organisation.
What is stress
Cox and MacKay define stress as: “a perceptual phenomenon arising from a comparison between the demand on the person and [their] ability to cope. An imbalance…[which] gives rise to the experience of stress and the stress response”.
Basically, stress is all in your mind. Yes, you have a pile of tasks and looming deadlines, but these in and of themselves do not create a force-field of stress. Two people with the same task due at the end of the week can react to it in completely different ways.
However, the person who perceives the task as stressful, or a threat, will trigger a real physical and physiological response in the body. Also known as the “fight or flight” response. This will create very real reactions - increased stress hormones, i.e. adrenaline and cortisol. In the past, our evolutionary response to stress has helped protect us from sabre-toothed tigers and sharpened our focus, stamina and speed. Today, however, sabre-toothed tigers manifest as work deadlines, job interviews, or clashes with work colleagues - and our brains cannot tell the difference. Our bodies react in the same way.
A firefighter, who puts his life in danger every day can experience the exact same level of stress as an office worker faced with delivering a presentation. The stakes may be completely different, but the experience of stress is exactly the same.
How does stress affect us?
Chronic stress can completely wreak havoc with your body. It can:
Suppress your immune system
Affect your digestive system
Impact your reproductive systems
Increase the risk of heart attack and stroke
Speed up the ageing process.
Rewire your brain to make you more vulnerable to anxiety, depression, and other mental health problems
The more you get stressed, the harder it becomes to recover.
What causes stress in the workplace?
Internally these can be:
Increased workload demands
Having to perform multiple tasks
Lack of understanding of a new role / poor onboarding processes
Lack of management support.
New security regulations
New government policy
How to spot stress in your staff/teams?
As a manager, it is also important to monitor stress within your teams. Some of the ways stress can manifest include:
An increase in health issues
Increased staff turnover
An increase in customer complaints
An increase in absences
An increase in disputes
An increase in hostility in meetings
Poor attendance to training
Difficulty in attracting new staff
A decrease in productivity
It is important to continually monitor for signs of stress in your teams. Regularly monitoring any late working and holiday requests can be the first indicator. Using engagement surveys and holding regular performance meetings are also good tools.
How can we stop feeling stressed?
“I was leaving for work at 5am, then working at home till 3am...to try and analyse data in time for the next day. I wasn’t sure if I was doing it correctly, and then obsessing on small details around formatting instead of looking at the bigger picture. I got to work the next day and emailed my report. Do you know what the response was? Nothing. The manager had forgotten she had even asked me for the analysis and now it wasn’t important. The next week I was much happier, work seemed easier. And do you know what changed? Nothing. I had just said to myself, it’s not worth it. I changed my mindset and my stress was gone.”
“…People who cultivate a positive mindset perform better in the face of challenge. Training your brain to be positive is not so different from training your muscles at the gym. Recent research on neuroplasticity—the ability of the brain to change even in adulthood—reveals that as you develop new habits, you rewire the brain.”
(Source: Positive Intelligence, Harvard Business Review (HBR), January-February 2012, Shawn Achor)
Being told to relax and have some time off often makes stressed people more irritable. For each one of us managing our stress may need a different approach.
Here are some practical tips for you:
Change your response:
Copy the techniques of your less stressed colleagues. Find out how they cope, what training gaps you have or just ask for help.
Reframe your stress. For example, ask yourself these questions: What’s the worst that can happen? Even the worst case scenario can be managed. Can the deadline be changed? Can you ask for it to be changed?
Change the stressors:
Identify your circles of control. For example, you cannot control Brexit, but you can take steps to mitigate potential impact.
Build up your resilience:
Ask for new skills and training for your role
Take a course in emotional intelligence
Read up about stress. The more you know about it the more geared up you are to identifying it and tackling it.
Give yourself a boost - use cognitive restructuring techniques. Making yourself remember past your successes can help retrain your brain to act more positively. So re-read previous references or those glowing reports you got and remind yourself of how great you are.
...and for Managers
Encourage regular feedback
Run courses on emotional intelligence
Create a culture of leaving on time and lead by example
Give praise and positive feedback
Create mixed personality teams
Provide mentors for newer team members
Offer flexible working
Develop employee recognition schemes
We will leave you with this thought from Shawn Achor again.
“If you can raise somebody's level of positivity in the present, then their brain experiences what we now call a happiness advantage, which is your brain at positive performs significantly better than at negative, neutral or stressed. Your intelligence rises, your creativity rises, your energy levels rise. In fact, we've found that every single business outcome improves. Your brain at positive is 31% more productive than your brain at negative, neutral or stressed. You're 37% better at sales. Doctors are 19 % faster, more accurate at coming up with the correct diagnosis when positive instead of negative, neutral or stressed.”
(Source: Shawn Achor The happy secret to better work, Ted Talk)