This is a wonderful article one of my clients wrote, for her fellow stressed colleagues after working with myself for one session.
‘Stress? Stress? I don’t have time to be stressed. Other people might have time, but I don’t. I’ve got to work, cook, clean, do the school run, do extra hours, make packed lunches, be on committees, walk the dog – I don’t have time for that sort of thing. I don’t get a minute to myself as it is, there’s always something to be done and it’s down to me to keep everything afloat. I can’t trust anyone else to do the stuff I do. There’s no such thing as a work-life balance.’
So speaks your average stressed person who feels like stress is a luxurious and pointless hobby that other people indulge in (like how non-golfers view golf) without actually realising that they are showing some of the key signs of stress, such as feeling like they don’t have enough hours in the day, feeling guilty if they relax and do nothing and doing tasks themselves to make sure they’re done properly.
So, what is this ‘stress’ and why do some people seem to thrive on it?
The International Stress Management Association UK defines stress as ‘the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand places on them’, and the use of the term ‘adverse reaction’ is illuminating. Some stress can be good, it motivates us and helps us get things done. Most of us need a few deadlines to focus on our minds a little. In these circumstances, we’re quite happy to be ‘stressed’ but sometimes, this stress builds up or we’ve got a bit addicted to feeling stressed and we seek out more stress to keep the adrenalin flowing, and that’s where the problems start (often without us noticing).
There’s an anecdote that you can slowly boil a frog without it being aware of it, due to the gradual build up of heat. Similarly stress can creep up on us until we go from being pleasantly ‘stressed’ to feeling like we’re completely and relentlessly under the cosh and in a ‘no way out’ situation, like the frog. That’s when our everyday lives become affected – we might not be able to concentrate, or sleep. We might underestimate how long it takes to do things, and then (perhaps because we can’t concentrate or we’re overtired) we get behind and we start trying to ignore tasks we feel unable to deal with. Our memory can become impaired and we can’t think straight. We worry that we can’t do our jobs or think straight. We repeat ourselves! We feel stupid. We worry we’ve got a mysterious health problem because our thoughts lack clarity and we can’t make simple decisions. We go home later and later and it causes problems at home, until eventually our families don’t mind that we’re going home late because we’re so grumpy they would rather we were at work anyway, or we go home but before we know it we’re sneakily checking our work email or we’re caught out half-heartedly listening to someone whilst we’re really thinking about work.
We might be ‘clocking out’ but we’re certainly not ‘clocking off’ and where’s the fun in that?
Some of this might be ringing a bell with you. You might be the frog, or know someone who is. If you are, here are some tips to help reduce stress and improve wellbeing. They won’t all work for everyone, but if you can find a few that do you may find that life becomes a little more enjoyable again…
Learn to manage time more effectively by prioritising and doing the important jobs first. Don’t let other people waste your time! It’s YOURS not theirs. Let them waste their own time if they choose. It may be helpful to write a to do list to guide your day and be realistic about what you can achieve. Focus on three urgent tasks and make them your priority. Don’t forget to delegate if you are able.
Adopt a healthy lifestyle. That means eating well, seeing exercise as a necessity and not a luxury and ensuring you get enough sleep and rest. Someone needs to put you first, and that someone is YOU.
Know your limitations and not take on too much. This is harder. Having survived a recession most of us feel that we don’t want to say no to anyone, just in case… but it’s better to discuss whether you can realistically achieve something than take it on and panic or let someone else down.
Avoid unnecessary conflict. Don’t be too argumentative. Be assertive, rather than passive or aggressive. One of the key side effects of stress is negative changes in mood and behaviour. Be alert to any uncharacteristic behaviour and recognise it as a sign that things may be building up. Be aware of signs that you are losing your sense of humour or empathy.
Accept the things you cannot change.
Stop getting distracted. If you’re a PC user and you end the day with 25 tabs open, you’re probably getting distracted! Try to finish one task before starting the next. It often takes longer to work out where you are in a half-finished task when you return to it than it would have done to finish the task in the first place. Turn off email alerts and check your mail in between tasks rather than reading the pop up which may get your mind racing.
Stop avoiding the things you don’t want to do. If you don’t want to do them today, you definitely won’t want to do them tomorrow either. Take control and promise yourself a reward when you’ve done them.
Take time out to relax and recharge your batteries. Try to take at least one long holiday a year (10-14 continuous days is recommended), even if you find the idea of taking holiday, well, stressful. Don’t forget to take a break during the day, as after a 10-15 minute break you’ll be working more effectively and more than make up the time. If you’re contracted to have a lunch break, have at least some of it. It’s there for a reason. If you do have a break, try to step outside and get some fresh air. At home, try taking two ten minute periods a day as ‘me time’ and do the things that you used to enjoy, such as reading a book, savouring a cup of tea instead of bolting it down or playing on a computer game.
Find time to meet friends before they find new friends who actually have time to see or speak to them. Talk openly with friends about the pressures you are feeling as this lightens the load.
Avoid relying on alcohol, nicotine and caffeine to get you through. Alcohol is a depressant and caffeine and nicotine are stimulants – too much and your body will increase its stress response!
Find out what causes you stress. Be honest with yourself about what’s worrying you. Use the Colleague Support Programme if you feel you need advice. It’s what it’s there for.
Don’t be hard on yourself.