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Stress: Too big to ignore

I’ve only just discovered that April is National Stress Awareness Month. I know that there are so many ‘events’ like this nowadays that it can be easy to dismiss them all. For example, April 17th is also National Bat Appreciation Day. They’ve become wallpaper to us, another meaningless marketing campaign #ilovebats.

But stress is a hashtag we should all pay attention to. It’s something everyone of us should be reading about, talking about and trying to tackle. It’s the opposite of a silly marketing gimmick. So I decided to do my little bit to give it a boost in my small circle of influence. If I can make a few people in my little corner of the world take a moment to read this and consider the growing impact of stress, then that’s good enough for me.

We have to pay attention

You don’t have to look very hard to understand that something needs to change. Stress is damaging too many lives. A 2018 YouGov study found that 74% of UK adults have felt so stressed at some point over the last year they felt overwhelmed or unable to cope. 74% unable to cope. This can’t be OK.

Even worse is when you look at the response to this question in younger people; 83% of 18-24s agreed. What future are we building when the next generation is struggling through the early stages of their careers?

National Statistics from the Government show that stress is now the number one cause of people needing time off work, accounting for 57% of all working days lost due to ill health. Workload pressures, tight deadlines, too much responsibility and a lack of managerial support are the driving factors that create this epidemic. All things that we are in a position to control.

This isn’t something that is happening to us, it’s something we are creating ourselves.

We have to stop and create better ways of working. Reducing stress needs to be a priority for every leader - yes, because it’s the main reason your people are off and you can take action to reduce this, but also because it’s simply the right thing to do.

“No one succeeds without some stress”

It’s really easy to brush off the need to tackle the stress we all see and feel around us by ignoring the fact that stress levels have never been higher and instead concentrating on the fact that stress is part of the work deal. You have to be resilient in order to succeed.

But it’s getting harder to ignore the fact that stress is literally running riot. The levels of stress that go hand-in-hand with the modern workplace are not simply part of life. They are off the scale. In recent years, researchers have noted a sudden rise in workplace stress and have been trying to sound the alarm. Research by Gary Rees, a professor at Portsmouth Uni, shows that workers are facing so much stress they are being pushed beyond their limits. Rees says; “Work has intensified. The expectations are higher.”

Jeffrey Pfeffer, a business professor at Stanford, claims in his 2017 book, Dying for a Paycheck, that “Stress at work...just keeps getting worse for almost all jobs, resulting in ever-higher physical and psychological toll.”

We’ve all accepted a new work culture that celebrates overwork, exhaustion and stress. Feeling stressed has become our norm. But if we keep going along this same path, ignoring the ever growing levels of stress, it can’t lead us anywhere good. Something needs to give. You choose; the crazy deadline or someone’s sanity?

The argument here isn’t that work shouldn’t be stressful. It should be. Sometimes. And that’s the problem we face today. Stress is everywhere and it’s relentless. It’s making 74% of us feel unable to cope. That’s not about a lack of resilience from a few people, that shows stress is out of control.

Stress can be a positive force for us all

Building a culture that strives to protect people from incapacitating stress, doesn’t mean going soft. It’s not a choice between being nice or being successful. A business can still hold its people to high standards while also creating a place where stress isn’t damaging the workforce.

We all need to be pushed out of our comfort zones sometimes to understand what we can achieve. This in itself is stressful. Being challenged, stretched and inspired to grow into new areas can feel overwhelming to us all, but if you have the right leader supporting you, encouraging you and letting you know they have your back, the stress is a positive energy rather than a debilitating one.

Stress should be something that fuels a short-term sprint. That’s how our bodies are wired. Our own stress hormones - adrenaline, norepinephrine and cortisol - provide us with a source of speedy, short-term energy. However, these hormones are not designed to be circulating for long periods of time. When we spend much of our day in a state of low-level, constant stress we are doing real damage to ourselves. Cortisol in particular becomes toxic when it circulates in our bodies for too long. It breaks down immune systems and increases the likelihood of us getting sick. Think back to the 83% statistic of our 18-24 year olds; this toxicity is damaging their health right now. It’s within our control to choose a better path for them.

We can all cope with bursts of stress - but it’s when we are pushed too relentlessly that we start to struggle. There has to be sprints and then walks. We have to pulse. It’s this balance that fuels top performance. Not a relentless sprint that just leaves us exhausted, burnt out and broken.

Reducing stress will free us all to be brilliant

It should be a priority for every single one of us to reduce the levels of stress in our lives. There are so many reasons why this sentence is true, including the fact that:

  • stress is making many of us ill.

  • we get one shot at this game of life and many of us are spending far too much of it stressing about things that, in the grand scheme of things, don’t really matter

  • stress doesn’t stop at the borders of work, it bleeds into your life and hurts your relationships with your friends, your family, your kids

But sticking in the context of work, it should be a priority because it’s stopping all of us from reaching our potential. Rather than work stress driving us to succeed, it’s now hindering us hugely.

The positive stress described above is one where you are scared but energised, challenged but emboldened, out of your comfort zone but supported. This is the only mental state in which the human brain can operate to its full capacity. Whenever we are feeling any negative emotions, our brains simply cannot reach top gear. The relentless stress the majority of us feel during our working day massively reduces our performance. Surely we all want a shot at seeing how amazing we can actually be?

Where to start?

Anything this big feels daunting. But I believe that small steps can make a big difference. We need change to happen in the companies we work for, but we can start to drive this change as individuals today. We don’t all need to book tickets to join the Buddhist monks in Tibet. There are so many ways we can all take better care of ourselves - from getting more sleep, to doing more exercise, to spending more time outside in the fresh air. There are people out there far more qualified than me in these areas who are full of advice and tips. So, I’d like to share one idea which you can use immediately in your working life.

We all know that the way we work today is very different to how it was 10 years ago. The advances of technology mean that we are all connected, all the time. We can respond immediately to our clients and colleagues wherever we are and whenever they need us. And we do. We respond while crossing the road. We respond while bathing our kids. We respond while having dinner with friends. We respond when we’re on holiday. This immediacy of response has sped everything up. Work feels fast, furious and frenetic. On average, we receive around 100 emails a day and a recent study of over 2million people showed that most emails are now answered in just 2 minutes. 2 minutes!

Those of us who work in customer service are actually paid to answer emails promptly. The rest of us however are paid to bring value to our company in a very different way - anything from developing new software, creating a marketing campaign or writing legal documents - nothing to do with answering emails. And yet, we all allow 100 daily emails to distract us from the job we are hired to do. There is nothing more stressful than the feeling of desperately trying to write one sentence while being constantly interrupted and pulled off track. So my tip to reduce stress is simply to create moments in your day when you aren’t interrupted.

At its most simple level, it’s about taking yourself away to a quiet space, shutting off your email, silencing your phone, putting it out of sight and working for an hour or so on whatever task you choose. These actions go against our current obsession with immediate 24/7 response but it’s worth giving it a go because the benefits are astonishing.

You will get more done in that hour than you often achieve in a full day full of interruptions. This in itself feels good and helps to reduce stress. But here’s the truly magical bit; when we create these moments where we can fully focus and lose ourselves in our work, we enter a state called flow. When in this state, our brains switch off parts of the brain in order to give us the energy to concentrate and be brilliantly clever. The areas that get shut down are the areas responsible for self-criticism and fear. Much of the stress we feel at work is driven by these two areas of the brain so by creating moments of flow in our day, we not only achieve brilliant work but we allow ourselves to enjoy a state of mind that’s stress-free.

In our current workplaces and with our current approach to our work, we rarely get to visit this lovely mindset. We never feel the positive state of flow because we are never focused for long enough on one thing. We flick around and our heads never settle. We all deserve and need to spend more time in the stress-free-flow-zone.

Where to end?

This blog clearly doesn’t go anywhere near solving the challenge we face. And nor was it meant to. I simply wanted to do my bit in pushing back against the norm we seem to have accepted.

Work shouldn’t do us damage. It should be a positive, energising part of our life stories.

Stress is holding us all back. We hold all the power to make things different.

Because I don’t have all the answers, I didn't know how to end the blog. There is no neat solution to end on. So I’m giving the final words to a bloke called Matt Haig. He is an author and I think he is a magician with words. One of his books is called “Notes on a nervous planet” in which he speaks from personal experience about the stress of our world. I recommend this book to everyone. I read it over and over again.

Note to self

Keep calm. Keep going. Keep human. Keep pushing. Keep yearning. Keep perfecting. Keep looking out the window. Keep focus. Keep free. Keep ignoring trolls. Keep ignoring pop-up ads and pop-up thoughts. Keep risking ridicule. Keep curious. Keep hold of the truth. Keep loving. Keep allowing yourself the human privilege of mistakes. Keep a space that is you and put a fence around it. Keep reading. Keep writing. Keep your phone at arm’s length. Keep your head when all about you are losing theirs. Keep breathing. Keep inhaling life itself.

Keep remembering where stress can lead.

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