Feeling a little stressed at the moment? You’re not alone. In the first year of Covid, global levels of anxiety and depression increased, according to the World Health Organization, “by a massive 25%.” The WHO report was published on March 2nd 2022, just six days before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Subsequent spikes in oil and gas prices have contributed to the fastest rise in the UK’s rate of inflation for 40 years. Stress will be with us for a while yet, so what’s the best response?
Stress is one of the most prevalent work-related factors affecting the health of UK adults. In 2020/21, 822,000 workers suffered from stress, depression or anxiety, accounting for half of workplace-related cases of ill health, according to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). A study published by the American Psychological Association, (March 2022) indicates that long-term and acute stress is again increasing in response to inflation, financial concerns, and worry over the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Warping productivity, stress is difficult to measure and hard to resolve, particularly when related to circumstances beyond an employer’s control. So what exactly is it?
The effects of stress
Stress starts with a physical response to a specific situation – perhaps an excessive workload. It’s not exclusively a psychological condition, it’s primarily a physiological reaction, for example stress levels can be measured in a lab by looking at certain hormones and neurotransmitters.
This physical reaction disrupts what someone might regard as their ‘normal’ response to whatever sparked the problem. If it’s ignored, it can expand until it disrupts the response to other situations too, which may or may not be related to the first one. For example, someone dealing with an excessive workload might subsequently struggle in relationships with colleagues or managers, or they might not be able to cope with a difficult company culture. At that point, stress needs to be recognised and addressed.
The disruptive nature of stress is hard to live with, certainly for the person concerned and perhaps also for others around them. It distorts natural responses and makes it hard to access parts of the mind that can help in managing the problem. Stress can restrict the ability to find a sense of perspective, and it can make it difficult to reach the psychological systems involved in learning, for example learning how to escape stress and manage the issue(s) that sparked it.
In some circumstances stress can be useful. Stress immediately before or after an attempt to learn something can enhance memory, particularly when stress is related to the content. However, according to the UK’s Mental Health Foundation stress has been found to be beneficial only if it’s short-lived. Excessive or prolonged stress can contribute to illness such as heart disease and mental health problems such as anxiety and depression.
Managing stress – helping you help yourself
As a first response, if you have a problem it’s important to acknowledge it. This is the first in a three-step recognition process suggested by the Mental Health Foundation. The second step is to identify the causes of stress and the third is to review your lifestyle.
“Not taking control of the situation and doing nothing will only make your problems worse”, says Professor Cary Cooper, an occupational health expert at the University of Lancaster. How do you know if stress has reached the point where you need to do something about it? The NHS offers a short, free quiz to help you decide.
To maintain your mental health, and protect yourself from stress, the Mental Health Foundation suggests these seven steps:
- Eat healthily
Eating healthily can reduce the risks of diet-related diseases. There is a growing amount of evidence showing how food affects our mood and how eating healthily can improve this.
- Be aware of smoking and drinking alcohol
Smoking and drinking may seem to reduce tension initially, but this is misleading as they often make problems worse.
Try and integrate physical exercise into your lifestyle as it can be very effective in relieving stress. Even just going out and getting some fresh air, like going for a walk to the shops can really help.
- Take time out
Take time to relax. Strike the balance between responsibility to others and responsibility to yourself, this can really reduce stress levels. Tell yourself that it is OK to prioritise self-care.
- Be mindful
Mindfulness is a mind-body approach to life that involves paying attention to our thoughts and feelings. This increases our ability to manage difficult situations and make wise choices.
- Get some restful sleep
Are you struggling to sleep? This is a common problem when you’re stressed. Could you make small changes to your lifestyle to help get restful sleep?
- Don’t be too hard on yourself
Try to keep things in perspective, having a bad day is a universal human experience. When your inner critic or an outer critic finds faults, try and find truth and exception to what is being said.
Managing stress – advice for managers
Many companies operate an employee assistance programme (EAP), providing swift help when it’s needed. The advantage of having something like this in place is that it proves to anyone who might need it that help is available and it’s OK to ask for it.
Without an EAP, there is more chance that someone will sit in silence – which may only increase the time they might eventually need to take off work. If you don’t yet have an EAP, Working Voices offers a suite of courses on wellbeing that can help your organisation develop a strategy on responding to mental health issues.
An EAP or mental health strategy suggests that managers are likely to respond with empathy in helping someone manage the difficulties they face. Employees are more likely to discuss things with you if your organisation has a culture of openness, inclusion and trust. Equally, people are less likely to admit the truth if they fear it may adversely affect their reputation.
It’s a manager’s responsibility to take the problem seriously – reacting in the same way as if the issue involved physical health. For example, managers need to know that someone signed off work with a mental health issue is entitled to sick pay.
Tackling the bigger picture
Managing mental health difficulties is never easy. Someone may not choose to admit much about what’s going on, either to themselves or to others. For managers, a sensible reaction to someone reporting an issue would be to invite the person to join them in an open and trusting chat. As a leader, such a conversation is your opportunity to sincerely look at your organisation’s systems and ways of working, and perhaps make any necessary changes.
Prevention is better than cure. Any manager has an interest in limiting work-related problems and protecting job retention. Managers who, in helping one person, take time to look at the wider picture are more likely to nip issues in the bud before they entangle others.