It is a tough time to be an employee. Having just weathered the worst recession since the 1930s, British workers are bracing themselves for another wave of cutbacks and redundancies.
Those in the public sector are especially nervous, fearing that even if they don’t lose their jobs they will have to pick up the slack when colleagues leave and are not replaced. This climate of uncertainty, triggered by the credit crunch and subsequent brutal spending cuts, is fuelling worryingly high stress levels in the workplace. According to figures from the Health and Safety Executive, in 2009/10, around 435,000 Britons suffered from work-related stress, with 9.8 million working days lost. As a wellbeing coach, I work on a daily basis with clients suffering from chronic stress and anxiety.
Although stress and job insecurity are, of course, nothing new, what does seem different to me is the constant, low-level anxiety many of my clients have experienced in recent years. This sense of vulnerability, of being out of control, is a key trigger for the unmanageable stress that leads many people to seek treatment. In addition to being deeply unpleasant, chronic stress (ie lasting for an extended period) causes a range of psychological, physical and behavioural problems. These include irritability, poor concentration and decision-making, depression, burnout, heart palpitations, chest pains, tension headaches, passive or aggressive behaviour… the list goes on.
Stress is also strongly linked with stroke, diabetes and cardiovascular disease, so should definitely not be taken lightly. Before explaining how best to tackle stress, it is useful to understand what causes it. The ‘stress response’ is linked to a threat-protection system in our brain that readies us for action.
Although in the modern workplace these ‘threats’ are likely to be redundancy, a demanding boss or an unmanageable workload, our physiological reaction is exactly the same as if they were a marauding lion or enemy tribe attacking our village. Our heart races, breathing becomes fast and shallow, stress hormones, including cortisol and adrenaline, flood our system and non-essential bodily functions, such as our digestive, reproductive and immune systems, temporarily go offline. This all happens in seconds every time the stress response is switched on. So the first line of defence against stress is always cardiovascular exercise, such as jogging, cycling, brisk walking, racquet sports – or a salsa class. Once you understand that millennia of evolution have designed our bodies for intense physical activity (to fight or flee from the threat), it is easy to see why exercise is such a good idea.
It not only burns off cortisol and adrenaline, but also stimulates endorphin production – the body’s ‘feel good hormones’ that give us a sense of euphoria and wellbeing. Calming exercise such as swimming, yoga or tai chi, relaxation techniques including deep, abdominal breathing and progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) are also most beneficial, as is the NICE-approved ‘mindfulness’ meditation. These all switch off the stress response and activate our relaxation response, which makes us feel calm, safe and rested – vital to counteract the over-revved, agitated state common to people suffering from chronic stress.
Of course, neither employee, manager nor CEO can flick a magic switch and give us a booming economy or a rosier jobs market. But people who are anxious about the future do have the power to control that anxiety. A key concept in cognitive-behavioural coaching – the type of coaching I use with clients – is that it is not the events themselves that stress us out, it is our attitudes to and beliefs about them. Workers who ‘catastrophise’ (assuming the worst about their future) are far more likely to feel stressed, anxious and threatened than those who adopt a level-headed, realistic approach. This applies to every key stressor affecting employees: giving presentations, high-pressure meetings, hitting deadlines, writing key reports. All can either be seen as unpleasant, difficult and frightening – or as challenges that may require extra effort, but are eminently achievable. It is also tempting for stressed-out employees to work from dawn to dusk, believing that a 12-hour day and six-day week will help them feel less stressed and more in control. Not only is this highly likely to cause stress-related illness in the long term, but their performance and productivity will actually decline.
That’s why the oft-quoted phrase ‘work/life balance’ is so important. We all need downtime to rest, have fun, see friends and family and recharge our batteries for the next working day. In these challenging times, that need is greater than ever.