Updated: May 13, 2021
Recently, I’ve heard and spoken to a few people about stress. Particularly as a result of the way many of us are currently working. Back in the days of commuting to an office, that commuting time would be our own. Depending on our mode of transport and route taken, we could read, sleep, listen or breathe fresh air and observe nature and life around us. It would be a time to mentally prepare for the day or to decompress from the day’s stresses and refocus; a transition from home life to work and vice versa.
However, our typical commute now might be about 10 seconds from one room of the house to another – not quite enough time to let go of the day’s stresses and mentally readjust before landing in the middle of family life. Or we might find ourselves finishing work and staying in the same room, alone, not having a change of scene or the presence of others that triggers a different frame of mind.
Stress, in itself, is not bad for us. The key is to break the accumulation of stress so it doesn’t become bad for us; something we now have to be much more proactive in doing for ourselves. A useful comparison is to think of it in similar terms to exercise. We place muscles under stress during exercise which damages the muscle fibres, then our body builds muscle through the cycle of recovery and repairing those fibres. The repaired fibres increase in thickness and number, growing our muscle. So although the exercise is a critical part of the process, the muscle growth occurs when we are resting.
As our body adapts to a certain load (e.g. a weight on a particular lift), we need to gradually increase the load to build more muscle as that keeps the cycle of damage and repair going to build our strength.
There are also various ways to enhance the benefit during your recovery period, such as staying hydrated, good nutrition, stretching, sleep, massage, cryotherapy, etc.
Just as our muscles develop through initially being damaged, experiencing stress can be a good thing for us. ‘Good stress’ can occur on occasions when our heart beats faster and hormones are triggered – this could include exercise, adrenaline sports, romance and so on. It can give us the energy burst we need to get something done. It can also prompt a flight reaction to avoid a potentially dangerous situation. However, this stress will only remain good if it’s experienced in short bursts and we recover from it by calming down through a rest and recovery process.
We might also feel acute stress in our lives. This is moving towards what we more typically consider to be ‘stress’; for example, being caused by a short-term concern such as a task in work, or a particular meeting or presentation. However, acute stress is also not a problem if we allow ourselves to recover from a burst of it. In fact, acute stress with recovery enables us to build our resilience to stress, in the same way our body builds muscle and strength through a cycle of exercise and recovery periods.
What we must strive to avoid is chronic stress. This occurs when we suffer a build-up of stress over a longer period of time and it seems inescapable. Causes could include an accumulation of multiple stressful tasks, being under pressure at home or at work (or both), loneliness, financial concerns, poor relationships or suffering trauma. When this stress builds without our body having a chance to relax and recover, it can begin to affect our health both physically and mentally. Signs of this include aches and pains, fatigue, having trouble sleeping, feeling anxious, being more irritable and suffering from reduced energy.
Therefore, it is vital that we do what we can to prevent a build-up of stress that accumulates to a point of becoming chronic stress.
What can we do?
Fortunately, there are many ways we can help ourselves and, even better, a lot of them are free!
1. Exercise regularly. Exercise is proven to be good for us both physically and mentally, and ensuring we keep moving and get away from the screen can help us to break the cycle of stress and put our focus elsewhere. Going outside for a walk can be a great way to do this for nothing.
2. Eat well and stay hydrated. Not only does what we put into our bodies have a significant impact on us, but taking the time to prepare good, balanced food or going to get that drink also acts as a break from the stress of the task you are working on.
3. Breathe. It can be that simple! Take regular breaks and engage in simple breathing techniques, mindfulness exercises or meditation. Regularly allowing your body and mind a few minutes to let things go by sitting, relaxing and breathing deeply can prevent stress building. You can find free step-by-step guides to breathing exercises online, but one very simple example can be found on the NHS website.
4. Take a lunch break. Working at home without others encouraging (or forcing!) us to take a lunch break means it is very easy to work through. Taking a proper break at lunchtime and doing something else is a great way to break your stress. It is also often the case that our brains will come up with a solution in times when we step away and relax or do something entirely different.
5. Take holidays. Without having anywhere to go, it’s tempting to just keep plodding on. However, taking our allocated time off is crucial to enable us to relax. Spend time with your family, partake in a hobby, learn a new skill, read a book or watch a boxset – do something different and do it for you.
6. Sleep well. This is one I particularly struggle with as I try to fit more and more into my day, and generally into the increasingly shorter time period that occurs when everyone else has gone to bed. There are many factors that can affect our sleep which could form a whole new article, but a key first stage is recognising that you are not getting enough quality sleep and taking steps to create good habits to change that, e.g. switching screens off 30-60 minutes before bed and reading instead.
7. Talk. Don’t hold all of the stress on your own shoulders. Talk to others, ask for help, seek ideas. Use your network and relationships to help you.
8. Strengths. Create a bank of resources you can use to remind you of your strengths in dealing with similar situations in the past. You can also look at others who you admire and learn what helped them achieve what they have and ‘borrow’ habits and techniques from them.
Ultimately, it is up to us to take responsibility for our own wellbeing by ensuring we build time into our routines for breaks, exercise, talking to others, sleeping well, etc. We can learn about what will benefit us, but unless we actually do it, we can accumulate stress and worry further about the fact we aren’t doing what we know we should!
As an employer or manager, creating an environment that facilitates your people to take care of themselves and actively encourages the mindset that means they will do it, not only boosts your employees’ wellbeing but also significantly enhances their, and your, performance.
Our Personal Leadership programme is a bespoke coaching programme that supports whole-life self-reflection. It can help you take responsibility for key wellbeing indicators that enable you to manage stress better, identifying actions and building habits to improve your wellbeing and performance. Developing a corporate programme can further boost wellbeing, performance and engagement across your team and organisation. You can find out more about Personal Leadership here.
You can also download HSE’s free ‘Talking Toolkit’ for employers and line managers to help you prevent work-related stress.