How to manage stress at work

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It may be a point of debate whether there is now more workplace stress than in previous generations, but what is certain is that awareness of the problem has spiked and solutions have multiplied.

Experts are increasingly on hand not only to pinpoint issues that could raise stress levels, but also to advise on how organisations and individuals can negotiate their way through day to day pressures with more ease.

Creating a support system

Gail Kinman, Professor of Occupational Health Psychology at the University of Bedfordshire said that jobs became typically high stress when employees had too much to do, too little time to do it in, too few breaks and competing demands.

If you did not have support at work it could be the equivalent of “being a heavy smoker on your health,” she pointed out.

This could be particularly relevant for accountants. Emotional support is crucial especially when dealing with clients, who could be “weird and wonderful,” she said.

“You may have to perform what is called emotional labour, which means that if people are rude to you or off hand then you still have to toe the party line and be corporate, so you can’t retaliate and say how you feel,” said Kinman.

“It’s really important because you feel a bit inauthentic and it’s exhausting because you’re regulating the emotions you feel and express.”

Doing more for less

Role creep, “if you don’t really know where the job begins and ends”, was also a problem as people took on more responsibilities, she said, alongside “change fatigue”, when employees became passive or even bitter and cynical about too many extreme changes over a period of time.

“Lack of control” could hit accountants particularly hard, said Kinman. “They have professional procedures to follow and if they don’t follow them the penalties and sanctions can be quite extreme, they can be struck off,” she pointed out.

“But also there are rules and regulations that are constantly changing so they have to be abreast of that.”

Feeling isolated

Remote working could also be a big issue. “It’s sold quite a lot now – organisations like it because it helps them to reduce the costs of buildings…but it can be very socially isolating.”

Liz Walker, HR director at Unum UK, a leading employee benefits provider, suggested that other universal causes of stress could be “tension with a colleague or manager, frustration with career progression, unclear direction or unmanageable workloads.”

But employers were increasingly recognising that outside pressures include, “money worries, relationship issues, caretaking responsibilities or legal concerns.”

Employers had to view the mental health of their employees as an asset and realise their own role in stress management to “work proactively to prevent or intervene early before stressful conditions escalate and impact productivity,” said Walker.

Learning how to switch off

Setting parameters to help people truly disconnect and “turn off” work could help, as would mental health first aid training to equip staff to detect problems.

“For those who are having trouble coping or find themselves moving from stress to distress, remove any perceived or actual barriers that allow employees to get the help they need to recover,” she added.

For Professor Kinman, maintaining a sense of control is important to keeping stress levels down. “Control enables people to find ways of actually meeting the demand in creative ways,” she said.

“It’s about autonomy, about times of starting and finishing work, how you work, what you do to keep things in order.”

The most effective interventions from employers were those that stopped stress occurring in the first place, she argued.

Making well-being changes

Organisations should do their research, using employee focus groups and regular employee engagement surveys to find out where potential problems were.

“Acting on the findings is one of the most important things because so many organisations do these surveys and then put the results in a drawer somewhere and that just breeds cynicism,” she said. “Change stressful things when you can, if you can and be seen to take it seriously.”

Jonathan Burston, founder of the Interview Expert Academy said that organisations were starting to invest heavily in health and well-being. “I think there is a growing understanding of mental health at its broadest level than ever before now,” he said.

“The employer has to understand what is acceptable and what isn’t acceptable and the workloads that people are being put under and when there are staff reductions being made,” Burston added.

The most effective interventions from employers were those that stopped stress occurring in the first place

What employers can do

Checking up with staff required an “emotional intelligence” and a “much more disciplined organisational-wide investment to train managers on becoming more emotionally aware of their staff and to have that a helicopter view of how they are coping,” Burston argued.

But employees could also help to relieve the pressure on themselves by prioritising tasks and practising mindfulness, he said. “What can I do right now that moves me in the right direction?”

Taking control of thoughts

And while it may seem like a simple solution, getting some exercise, fresh air and eating and sleeping well, all helped.

“We eat the wrong things, we drink too much, we don’t get enough sleep, which manifests itself into a downward spiral,” he said. “Take time out to do things that you enjoy doing, that give you a renewed vigour.

Keeping a journal could also help to put yourself back on the right track. “What are the things that make you feel pressure..and what has triggered it? Then in a few days’ time reflect back and say ‘what would I do differently’?”

Creating balance

At Unum, Walker suggests starting your day a bit earlier to ensure you have enough time to get organised and accomplish “must-do’s” on your daily task list.

Breathing exercises could also help to get back in balance, while learning to say no was also key, she said.

Taking control of your thoughts and trying to think positively was crucial to combatting stress, said Walker. “Often we’re far harder on ourselves than we would be on others. Try to think positively rather than putting yourself down,” she said.

“Feeling anxious can make our thoughts spiral out of control and think outlandish things. When you find this happening, try to question your thoughts by asking yourself questions such as ‘is this worry realistic?’”

The employer agenda

To a certain extent, employees have to own their own situation, argued Kinman.

“You can’t expect organisations to make jobs stress free because that isn’t going to happen. People will always have deadlines, too much to do or too little to do,” she said.

“Building resilience is really important…essentially it’s about helping people understand what they can change. If they can change things then fine, but if they can’t they need to change their reactions to them.”

Refocus your energy

Mindfulness exercises and apps that “help people remain in the moment and think about present focus, helps communication and to avoid misunderstandings,” she said.

“More importantly it really helps people avoid stress because they become more aware of changes in their thinking patterns and their bodily responses,” Kinman added.

“Make sure that you have a good work/life balance. Prioritise recovery, switch off, stop,” she said.

“Switching off is really important and making sure that you recover, finding out what replenishes you..thinking about when you were at your best self, what did it feel like, what were you doing?” she pointed out.  When people get really stressed they lose sight of who they are.”

Nicola Smith has spent a decade reporting for The Sunday Times on both the European Union and South Asia.

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