Stress At Work
In this global pandemic, we’re used to wearing masks. What’s your style? Professional black? Cool navy, with stripes perhaps, or fashionable florals? Each to our own and – because it’s the law – we’re all wearing them: Hands, Face, Space – to save lives. But now we’re beginning to head back to work after lockdown (or perhaps, sadly, losing our jobs), what about the other type of mask – the invisible type, the one called ‘Fake Smile’? Have you ever worn one of those masks, the ‘Put on a Brave Face’ type, to disguise the tears, the frustration and yes, the stress?
Chances are you have, especially in the workplace. Whilst we’re happy to admit to a broken leg, or a bout of mild Covid, we’re often reluctant to admit to anxiety or stress; our mental health remains shrouded in fear, shame and secrecy, whether we’re the boss, or the newest recruit.
One in four of us experience mental health problems of some kind each year
The mental health charity MIND says one in four of us experience mental health problems of some kind each year, much of it relating to anxiety, depression and stress. But there’s something about putting on our suit or tie, carrying work tools out of the van, or marching into the office post-lockdown that prompts us to put on a display of professionalism, and tip-top performance, and shove to one side our vulnerability. So many of us grab that invisible mask from deep in our pockets, stretch it over our ears and smile cheerily, with the message: ‘Yes, I’m Fine Thanks’. That’s all well and good…until it isn’t.
Stress knows no boundaries
Stress can creep up on us, it knows no boundaries, targeting anyone from the CEO down to the apprentice; cracks emerge in the mask, we go off sick. It can create anxiety and depression, a weakened immune system, stomach aches, soaring blood pressure for some, insomnia for others. It’s a costly business. It’s estimated mental health-related sickness cost UK businesses around £14 billion in 2020, with companies facing problems with teamwork and concentration, reduced productivity, and having to pay out huge sums to replace staff who leave jobs. When the real cause of the sickness is masked in silence and secrecy, with many unable to admit to the levels of stress we’re under, the issue remains unresolved.
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It’s all about balance
Fortunately, increasing numbers of companies are beginning to recognise that it’s in their interests, especially when it comes to the financial bottom line, to ensure staff are not overwhelmed at work. Motivated staff, rather than stressed out staff, are more likely to be productive. Last year, around 8 out of 10 businesses reported a renewed focus on the mental and physical health of employees. Research shows that the way forward lies not in getting rid of all stress, but achieving a balance, because while stress can be harmful and make us sick, in the right doses it can also be good for us; it can fire up our brain, boost our performance, inject energy, and improve focus.
Raise self-awareness and address the problem of stress head on
The key to achieving this balance means addressing the problem head on. It helps to understand what stress is, to tune in to what’s really going on for us, to raise self-awareness, change our habits and, if necessary, reach out for help.
We’ve all experienced the physical impact of stress as we respond to ‘danger’, including the beating heart, faster breathing, sweating, a rise in blood pressure, flushed cheeks – all changes linked to the activation of our fight, flight or freeze mechanism. Over time, many of us ignore these changes and just ‘get on with the job’. In the short-term, this repression can work, and we can live a high-powered life in the fast lane. Problems arise when this constant denial of danger continues relentlessly, year after year.
We may also act differently under extreme stress. We may lose perspective and focus, become anxious or depressed, feel overwhelmed, stuck or confused, and become unable to make decisions, feeling insecure or trapped. Yet, we can become so good at denying the impact of stress that all too often we’re not even aware of the dangers to ourselves, let alone noticing it in our colleagues. Instead of enhancing our working lives it can have the opposite impact; over time we topple from soaring confidence to a state of emotional, physical and mental exhaustion – burnout.
What can we do to reduce our levels of stress?
What can we do to help reduce levels of stress, and create a healthy balance? Well, the usual stuff, such as eating well, exercising, and getting a good night’s sleep. We can also learn mindful techniques, take up yoga, or do breathing exercises. It’s also helpful to take stock every now and again, tune in to how we’re really feeling, and ensure stress levels remain manageable, rather than creeping into the sense of overwhelm. If we’re leading a team at work, we could encourage walking groups, or organise wellbeing sessions, keep an open door policy, and welcome staff who come and chat, ensure they feel at ease with asking questions or raising concerns. Offer constructive feedback, ensure staff take the holidays and breaks they deserve. Be positive.
Importantly, we need to be aware of our own masks, as well as those of others. Are we aware of putting on a ‘Yes, I’m Fine’ mask? Is our colleague doing the same? Check in, and if the reality is that we’re not fine, then consider adjusting workloads. Can we say, ‘no, sorry’ to extra responsibility, or take a break, perhaps? Let’s ask the same question to those we work with; try to work out who may be hiding how they really feel. By acknowledging the pressure we or others may be under, it’s possible to take preemptive action, to ask for help and support, or offer help and support – before it’s too late.
When normal life resumes in the workplace
One day soon hopefully we’ll all be able to remove our Covid masks safely, without fear of the deadly virus that has caused such misery. Rightly, that’s what consumes our attention now. But as normal life begins to resume in the workplace, let’s also consider how we might start afresh, think differently, and make some lasting changes towards improving mental health at work. Let’s keep our professionalism, but see if we can become more open about the pressures we’re all under and find a more positive, open and productive way forward, an atmosphere where we no longer have a need for that other type of mask: the insidious, invisible ‘Fake It’ mask.
Support from Skylite
Skylite is now offering a Webinar on how best to manage stress, run by our senior Skylite Associate Carys Edwards. She’s also a professional counsellor with a degree in Psychology and will offer some Top Tips for beating stress. You’ll also learn more about how stress impacts our bodies and minds, and work out how our personalities impact how we cope under pressure. For more details, please get in touch.
To find out more or book a webinar for your organisation, contact Skylite Associates today:
t: 01736 756295 | m: 07808 277767 | e: firstname.lastname@example.org