Managing Stress & Building Resilience
The last few weeks have been challenging in ways we’ve never experienced before. Having to face up to the fact that our lives have changed significantly is overwhelming. Not being able to see our friends and family, having to stay indoors and now having to work from home all can lead to the development of anxiety and stress, negatively impacting all of our mental health in some way.
For those that were suffering with poor mental health before the crisis hit, having to deal with these changes are now more challenging. However, more of us are going to experience stress and anxiety over the coming weeks, maybe for the first time. I’ve written this blog to help everyone manage their mental health over the months ahead and come out the other side healthy and positive.
What is stress
Its important to understand what stress is and what it is caused by. This will allow us to understand the triggers in our life that generate stress and create new strategies to relieve the symptoms.
The European Commission provides a definition of stress “ A pattern of emotional, cognitive, behavioural and physiological reactions to adverse and noxious aspects of work content, work organisation and work environment …Stress is caused by poor match between us and our work, by conflicts between our roles at work and outside it, and by not having a reasonable degree of control over our own work and our own life. (Levi & Levi, 2000)
So lets break that down. There are many theories out there on what causes stress. As stated in the above definition, control has a significant influence on the levels of stress we experience. The balance between how much control we have over our work and the demands placed on us can sometimes start to generate physiological, emotional and behavioural signs of stress.
So to use some examples:people might feel out of control…
- if they have such a huge volume of work that they can’t get through it quick enough before more arrives;
- if they are expected to complete work to a certain standard within tight time constraints;
- do not have the skills or experience to deliver work to a certain standard or timeframe.
Feelings of not being in control means people feel overwhelmed with the work or situation and “can’t see the wood for the trees”.
Another significant factor of stress is that of support. Studies have shown that with greater support from management and colleagues the feelings of stress can be mitigated.
The signs of stress
People experience stress in different ways and will show differing combinations of symptoms. Many signs include:
- poor sleep,
- weight loss or weight gain, plus
- a rise in drug and alcohol usage.
Anxiety is a typical symptom of stress. Anxiety is experienced through heightened feelings of worry and fear and can result in a number of symptoms including
- increased heart rate,
- tightening across the chest area and
- tension headaches.
These symptoms, together with feeling out of control, create a vicious cycle which can be difficult to interrupt and turnaround.
From the organisation’s or managers perspective…
With the majority of people now working from home and under government restrictions, organisations might feel there is little they can do to support their employees with stress management. I’d like to reassure you that there are ways and have provided some tips below:
- Take an individual approach: everyone is different and will deal with change in their own unique way. Various factors might influence how an individual might deal with change and how stress might manifest. These include:
- experience – highly experienced individuals might take to working in new, isolated ways better than others as they have full understanding and the capabilities necessary to deliver their objectives effectively. However, those that are relatively junior and need support might suffer from not having colleagues close to hand to ask questions and gain support
- personality – some people might relish the opportunity to work from home in their quiet space and manage to get a lot done. Others, that need the buzz of a busy office to stay focused and motivated might miss the interaction which could impact productivity and of course mental health. Its important to note, however, that more extraverted people tend to work better from home as they actively pick up the phone and reach out to people, minimizing the feelings of isolation and loneliness. Even though an introverted person might cope very well in a quiet space, they can soon become isolated due to not reaching out like their extraverted colleagues. There are other elements of personality that should be factored in terms of how some prefer structure and disciplined methods of working to those who like to work in a reactionary way, for example
- Personal “logistics” – under the current restrictions, many of us are at home with the whole household. Finding time to home school the children is a challenge many of us are experiencing. There might also be two or more adults working from home, so finding quiet space to work might be a challenge in itself.
- Personal loss – with COVID19 many of us are unfortunately going to experience the loss of a loved one of have anxiety over the health of those close to us, but unable to visit.
- Existing mental health issues – those that are known to the business that already are dealing with mental health issues may struggle with additional change and stress.
A “one-size-fits-all” approach should not be adopted. Taking time to understand individual’s personal needs, working style and challenges at home will allow managers to adapt how they interact and support their employees.
Communication: We are very fortunate that there are so many apps and technology available to stay in touch with our colleagues and work collaboratively from a distance. However, how we communicate needs to be considered.
- Making it Personal – Taking time to understand personal needs (as above) should help managers understand how often and in what format they need to communicate with their team members. Some people might need to have a call each day, others might want to just check in once per week.
- Use technology wisely – replicating an office environment through technology is not always helpful. Taking every meeting that used to be in the diary to a conference call can be exhausting. think about your team communications in a new light. How can you ensure team camaraderie and collaboration through the likes of zoom or Microsoft teams in a manner that suits the new working life. Try shortening meetings to half an hour or encouraging only the necessary people to pick up the phone to each other then get everyone else up to date via teams/email.
- Develop coaching skills – working from home has resulted in autonomy that many people have never experienced before. Some might welcome it, others might struggle. Using coaching skills to help individuals problem solve, innovate and deliver will build personal confidence and capability.
- Keep people informed and involved – use technology to share news and information about the organisation, individual’s success and maybe fun activities that people are doing at home to keep motivated and busy. Bring the company together through technology – but don’t overwhelm them with information either.
- Share stories – if people are struggling and have found strategies for coping, share them on teams and encourage debate. The more people feel that they are not alone in their feelings of stress and anxiety the more people can develop their own coping strategies.
- Encourage collaboration between teams and across the organisation. This will help people feel connected to the overall purpose of the business and stimulate motivation.
Use SMART objectives
- Being crystal clear on what individuals are expected to deliver will allow people to deliver to company expectations. Having discrepancy between what an individual thought they were supposed to deliver and what a manger expected will generate feelings of mistrust, confusion and of course, stress and anxiety. Spend time with each person ensuring you’re both on the same page when agreeing objectives. This will help in managing performance, giving feedback and motivating a dispersed workforce
From an individuals perspective
There is only so much your employer can do to support you in minimising and managing your stress and mental health. A significant element of stress management is self care and being proactive with how you manage your time both at home and at work. Below are some pointers on how you can manage positive mental health and wellbeing:
Get some structure
- Creating a plan for the week will help focus your days. Balancing family and work can be a challenge, so create a daily schedule with allocated slots for work, family and exercise. Feeling like you’ve got a goal to work towards will help you feel you’ve achieved a lot by the end of the week.
- Create a division between work and home. Once your work day has ended, pack away as much as you can so you can feel you’ve shut down. Just because you’re working from home doesn’t mean you’re on call 24/7. Close the door to the study (or whatever room you’re using), pack your laptop away from the dining room table and focus on what you’re going to do that focuses on you, your wellbeing and your family.
- Exercise. I’m sure everyone is taking advantage of the “short exercise” slot allocated by government, but if you’re not I’d suggest you use it. A good time to use it is either before you start your day, to focus your mind, or after you shut down, to create the division between work and home. Exercise is a great stress reliever so should not be ignored!
- Be positive. Try and focus on the positive factors in your life right now. Take time to enjoy the small things, like a sunny morning (rare) or birdsong, and think about the opportunity you have now to learn new skills or spend time with your children which you ordinarily don’t have. being optimistic and positive will help you find your own way to overcome stress and the overwhelming demands you might have.
- Break it down. If you are struggling with feeling overwhelmed, break down the tasks or issues you’re facing and think about what action you need to take to deal with them. try taking yourself through the GROW model to find the best solution and support you might need to resolve the situation. Sometimes when we focus on the whole task it can be difficult to see the simple actions needed to move forward. Breaking it down will allow you to feel in control.
- Focus on what you can control. We can often find ourselves worrying about things or focusing our energy on issues that are beyond our control. This can generate anxiety and take our attention away from those things which we can influence and achieve. Try listing everything that is worrying you and identify whether you can control it or not. If you can’t directly control it, think about whether you can influence it. If you can, try using the GROW model to identify how you can influence. If you can’t influence it or change it, then try and put it out of your mind. For example, we’re all worrying about COVID19 and how it might affect our own health or that of our friends and family. We can’t do anything to control whether the situation exists or not, but we can take control over what we do each day to stay safe and support those close to us to do the same. Worry comes through fear of the unknown, of the things we can’t understand or control. So taking time to think about what we can control will minimise the fear and allow us to remain positive and resourceful
- Acknowledge your emotions. These are tough, challenging times. Bottling up how we feel is not healthy and will increase feelings of stress and anxiety. Either talk to someone about how your feel, or write it down. I find having a private journal where you can download your thoughts and feelings is a great way of getting things in perspective. This will allow you to again focus on the areas you can control and those you needn’t worry about.
- Communicate. Its important to stay in touch with friends, family and colleagues. If you’re like me and withdraw when you’re feeling stressed, you’ll only feel more isolated and feelings of anxiety and stress will escalate. Book in time to have just everyday conversation with people, even if there is nothing in particular you need to resolve. Being there for each other and keeping the conversation flowing is important.
It can be hard when we’re feeling stressed, depressed and anxious to feel hopeful. But taking the steps above will help you to start feeling in control and improve your mental health and wellbeing. Good luck to everyone through this crisis. We can come out the other side stronger personally, and as a community.
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