Beating stress, creating calm

Facilitating workshops on dealing with stress is a common feature of my work in 2018 so far.  It's common place for people to experience stress at work.  It's prevalent in all three sectors.  It's definitely something highly significant for those dealing with challenging times in the public sector.    The public sector is rated as the second industry (after finance - just) most likely to experience work stress.  Reports and surveys show continuously that wellbeing at work remains a priority for continued engagement, motivation, people being able to do their best work, feel supported, be healthy and so on. 

A recently published (annual) UK work based survey contains some bold statistically measured facts.  Three that grab my attention are:

  1. Work is the most common cause of stress.
  2. The five most prevalent stress factors are, from top to fifth: sleep, anxiety/feeling anxious, being unable to concentrate, comfort eating and being less productive than normal.
  3. Stress only makes 3% feel more engaged in their job.

Headline 1

No surprise.  Work related stress is all around me in my work with learners and coachees in public sector organisations.  It's inherent in there is less money, less staff, fewer resources,  continued re-organisation/restructuring that threaten job security, more to do, and, it has to be done "better and quicker".  Employers are getting much better at introducing wellbeing policies but the two areas that still have a disconnect with this for people I work with are:

  • Perception that the Line Manager will penalise them (in performance management) or they'll be first up for losing their job if they take sick leave due to stress.
  • No one has the time to do everything they are being asked to do; it's constant.

Headline 2

Again, no surprise.    Being less productive is within one's thinking control but others can influence or have power over some of the outputs or outcomes.  However!  What is clear here for me is that the remainder are within the full control of the individual and yet they still continue to be the things that exacerbate stress.  

Headline 3

It's a bit of a theme, but, no surprise.  Engagement is critical and wellbeing at work supports this.

Beat stress at the top as well as through individual effort and learning

I'm beating a well worn drum, I know.  Organisations have more work to do to tackle work based stress and as it's often inherent in culture then that's what has to be worked on.  Great strategies and policies exist but in the words of Peter Drucker "culture eats strategy for breakfast".  I have less influence over organisations as a learning and development consultant so am able to provide feedback examples at best.  I do, however, provide learning interventions for staff, so here I can have some effect and provide learning and support.

As individuals we need to learn continuously to exercise the choices we have over our stress.  I think people forget we have a choice about everything we think, say and do and yet a lot of stress we don't manage well enough.  We have cultivated unconscious habits that don't serve us well.  We know that stress serves us in a lot of ways.  Small doses are good; too much becomes bad.  Beating stress by having more sleep, healthy eating and doing some form of exercise are 100% within my control.  We can do something on a daily basis, even a small change, knowing that these things make a difference to stress levels. The message here is JDI.  It will make a difference.

Creating calm - three steps: thinking, responding, making personal change

Creating calm is sometimes harder during a stressful day and it can involve breaking habits.  Here, the first step is to cultivate some simple activities into the working day - deep breathing exercises, stopping to pause and take time out, having proper breaks, staying hydrated (not sugary drinks).  Step two, learn to say "no" and step three, break unhealthy habits, because our view (perspective) plays a key part in creating calm.

Saying "no" is an assertive way to explain my needs or situation whilst also respecting and listening to the other person's needs and requests.  Saying "no" is not a refusal.  There are many ways to say "no" and most are about holding a professional conversation, listening and negotiating to achieve a win/win.  My tip is if you are in this situation always do these three things:

  1. Use "I" not "you" when you begin your response.  The former is assertive and comes from you (ownership), the latter is aggressive and can come across as confrontational.
  2. Use positive language, state what you can do; eliminate "I can't" from your dialogue.  This takes conscious thought and effort but is worth it or again, it will seem you are refusing or being confrontational.  My favourite word to be banned is "unfortunately".  Who is ever going to receive a message well when the first word they hear is this, followed by "I can't"?  You are psychologically preparing them for bad news in your first breath!
  3. Be fully accountable for yourself and take ownership. The fact might well be true that you haven't enough time or are "waiting for finance to send the figures through", but if that's the message you give back then you have failed to be accountable in your thinking and behaviour.

Finally, breaking unhealthy habits is something to work on that is 100% in your control but a bit more of a challenge in order to create calm for yourself.  Start with where you are and with small steps that are achievable.  Your perspective plays a big part in this.  It can be about breaking an embedded and probably unconscious pattern of behaviour.  You're on a default setting and probably have one or two favoured "conflict styles" you draw on.  Identify a well formed outcome and they try this:

  1. Practice noticing - what triggers you, what are you thinking, what do you feel as a result of these thoughts, what are the thoughts that arise.  
  2. Stop and realise - press pause, be silent, don't react, notice your thoughts and feelings, realise this habit does not serve you well.
  3. Reassess and respond - what's your outcome? The thought needs to change, so change it (re frame).  Deliberately choose a better response; repeat.

I provide short bite sized learning sessions on beating stress and also personal resilience workshops.  You'll find summary programmes for these on my website.  You can also contact me directly if you'd like to talk about this some more.