Most people will not have to suffer from severe mental health issues, depression, anxiety or suffer a full meltdown during their lifetime. But one in 4 of us will.
Thankfully, the stigma surrounding mental health is now being addressed and our attitudes are changing. Individuals can get the support that they need and be treated properly if they reach out. It took many courageous individuals to stand up and be personally exposed in order to change perception and attitude.
We must never let mental health issues suffer the same stigma that it did in the past. Only by maintaining an open dialogue and enabling sufferers to speak and share their personal stories without fear of repercussions, can we continue to increase awareness. We all have a role to play, even those of us that are lucky enough to have avoided any personal suffering.
I read one such individual story this week and wanted to share. Jonathan Trott, England international cricketing legend opened up about his return from England’s 2013-14 Ashes tour.
Whilst discussing mental health in an interview on Sky Sports, he revealed, that he had wrestled with his own problems.
Speaking during Mental Health Awareness Week, the batsman revealed he began to experience symptoms of anxiety during the home Ashes series in 2013.
Good advice – let’s keep talking.
When organizations invest in preventive and supportive mental health solutions, a little goes a long way. Employees should not need to travel to access the resources they need to cope with and reduce stress. Mindfulness training can be done online or through a mobile app, making it accessible to almost everyone. Research shows that Mindfulness accessed online is as beneficial to the majority of participants as doing Mindfulness in person.
Recent studies into the effects of Mindfulness show it can reduce symptoms of anxiety, depression and isolation brought on by being stressed and isolated working at home. Megan Bell Jones, Chief Science Officer at Headspace says “Our brains have developed to focus on the threat. Short-term stress and anxiety can be part of a healthy range of emotional experience. At times they can even help us stay safe”. What Mindfulness does is helps us to stop focusing on the symptoms of threat so our central nervous system can relax.
However, when we experience chronic stress from working at home it can tax our immune system. Working at home with not being able to leave work at work at the end of the day. Experts feel this scenario is being made worse by working from home as there is no element of leaving the office. We are permanently at work. This can cause more severe problems like anxiety, depression, and sleep disturbance. This threat reflex that releases powerful hormones like cortisol acts like a drug and keeps us hooked to news cycles and fuels chronic stress.
There are different forms of help for stress, anxiety and depression. Meditation helps deactivate the emotional center of the brain which is responsible for emotional reactivity. So in effect, you can detach from that part of you through medication but this does not help to address the root cause of the condition. When we help our brains stay grounded we are better able to engage the rational part of our brains. This can help us understand information and make decisions from a place of fact versus panic. Mindfulness works by helping people regulate emotions, changing the brain to be more resilient to stress, and improving stress biomarkers. This process effectively changes the structure of the brain meaning that our brains develop during Mindfulness; changing to be more resilient to the effects of stress, anxiety and depression.
A good Mindfulness programme is easy to set up, cost-effective and accessible online. During COVID19 it is essential employees and employers look after their mental health to ensure they are ready to bounce back quickly from COVID19. For more information on Mindfulness visit www.satis.org.uk or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the Author:
For the last five years I have studied an undergraduate degree and masters in Psychology and Mindfulness (MSc). This has led me to continue this research through a PhD at Warwick University. During these 5 years I have taught Yoga and Mindfulness as a full-time job to businesses. My hard work was rewarded with a contract to work as a lecturer teaching wellbeing, Mindfulness and Yoga courses throughout Coventry for Coventry Council.
A guide to managing workplace stress by Felicia Jones.
Have you ever felt stressed, I mean really, really stressed? But then, something funny happens; you see a child dancing or hear someone on the radio and somehow the former feeling seems to have disappeared? The question is, were you ever really stressed before, or was it something else?
Most people would attest to feeling stressed at times. It could be because of something that’s touching them personally or maybe it’s the stories you hear in the media. It could also be something that’s affecting a family member or friend. But here’s the thing. Stress is not homogenous in nature or even uniform as a term.
When we use or relate to stress in a homogenised way, we can confuse, or devalue its meaning. By doing this we can unknowingly, actually cause even more ‘stress’. What I’m hoping to do here, is to untangle, in brief, the treads that bind the term stress to intangibles and unknowns. It’s important that we do this and do away with umbrella terms. This enables us to more accurately pinpoint and verbalise what we and others are truly experiencing. In so doing, we have a much better chance of being able to deal with the real issue, properly.
The word stress has become an umbrella term, synonymous with words which actually much better, fit what we’re truly feeling. This may be; overwhelmed, anxious, tired, fatigued, bored, scared, dreading, fearful, grief or sadness and much much more. If we could more accurately name what we’re experiencing, then we’d be more likely to be able to ‘claim it’, ‘see it’ and ‘do something with and about it’. One area that this is really important in, is the area of work.
According to the HSE, 28.2 million days (2018/19) are lost every year due to work-related ill- health and a staggering £9.8billion lost to employers in costs. In years gone by, we’ve been used to hearing ‘work-related ill-health’ and maybe thinking of accidents or injuries. But what we’re actually talking about here, is stress-related illness. In fact, workplace injury only accounted for 4.7 million days lost.
The HSE also pinpoint stress-inducing situations, like those that we may be familiar with, ie, those of overstimulation. Here an individual finds it hard to cope with increased demands or expectations. However, The World Health Organisation (WHO) the leading authority on world health and wellbeing, suggests that there are varying areas which induce work-related stress and some may actually relate to under-stimulation. There are three areas of importance to consider:
Here an individual may find it difficult to cope with monotony, lack of variety, under-stimulation or what they perceive as ‘meaningless’ tasks. Or they may feel that they are unable to contribute to decision-making processes. These situations may be particularly relevant to graduates, who are eager to make their mark in their first or second job but struggle to navigate the change from highly singular academic to team orientation. Or, for the returnee parent who was managing a household but finds that these skills do not necessarily translate in the same way within the workplace. What is important is to recognise, not only that these situations may induce ‘stress’, but more importantly the terminology the employee uses to describe the stress as this is something that can actually be actioned.
Here individuals may feel uncertain of where they fit into the organisation. Or some may be struggling with home-work-life balance but feel unable to express it. Contrarily, achieving a much sought after promotion can actually be stress-inducing. This is not due to the additional responsibility, but rather the transition and adjustment and the impact it has on existing relationships. Having a safe space, if not with the line manager, then with HR to voice may be particularly useful.
What is interesting, is the area of respect and acknowledgement. It is an innate desire which most humans crave and is actually the fourth tier of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Its sits way above the need for salary, food and shelter. A 2007 presentation by Semmer, on recognition and respect, suggests that; ‘(people) go to great pains to defend their personal esteem and social self-esteem’. Furthermore, research by Tessema et al (2013) linked recognition as an important facet of job satisfaction. They stated that ‘people who feel appreciated are more positive about themselves and their ability to contribute’. It is important to note that there may be cultural variations to this and that financial compensation is also a contributory factor. However, recognition may be an under-utilised tool in boosting employee self-esteem and combating experiences that an employee may consider stressful.
Stress in and of itself is merely a biochemical reaction induced by internal or external stimuli. The body is wired to maintain a steady-state of homeostasis. Here ph levels, temperature, tissue viscosity and repair, metabolism, maintenance of commensal bacteria and emotional and physical stresses amongst other factors, are all kept in a healthy range. Anything beyond this state creates not only a stressor for the body but also a potential danger.
In maintaining homeostasis, the body utilises many different systems (or pathways). There are a few pathways for stress, but a critical factor is the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA). In short, when someone experiences a stressor, the brain signals to the adrenal glands that action is required to combat the stress. In reaction, the body then releases the most appropriate chemicals to induce action and eventually return the body to homeostasis.
Most people are now aware of the ‘fight, flight or freeze’ state. Particularly in the former, the body needs rapid glucose for brain processing and simultaneously to activate muscle tissue contraction. However, for someone who is chronically bored or feeling devalued at work, the emotions of frustration and internal anger may similarly induce a fight or flight state. This is another reason why it’s really important to use language accurately because differing pathways often cross or interact. They may start with a similar initial root, however, produce differing feelings that can be confused, such as depression and anxiety or physical pain with elation or cold and fear.
Even if only sitting at the desk, the body will utilise the same mechanisms required to address a fire or a verbal onslaught. It will initially release adrenaline and glucose and insulin and overtime cortisol as the perception is of a ‘real’ danger to the body’s survival. But ultimately, for an individual sitting at a desk, ruminating rather than speaking out or acting, they risk having stress chemicals accumulate in the body. This then creates the body to continually signal action requests in order to navigate out of the situation. This is where people begin to get sick with tension headaches, gut problems, sleep problems and fear-based anxiety. Simply being able to accurately say what the actual problem is, can help to turn things around.
Access the right words. A simple thing which teachers and parents use and may sound condescending to adults, but may actually help, is to say (in the nicest way); ‘use your words’. In line with this, it’s very useful to have an emotional vocabulary sheet to help people access what they are actually feeling.
Identify the stressor. This may be as simple as ‘I struggle going into a meeting’ or ‘I feel that saying ‘no’ or ‘I can’t’ will be seen as a weakness and marked against me.’ Or for some, it may be something at home, or sometimes going into a similar situation in which someone has failed before. By accurately identifying the stressor, mechanisms can be put in place to address it.
Good nutrition. A healthy brain and gut (where serotonin the ‘feel-good chemical’ develops) creates healthy, active individuals. Most workplaces have cakes and biscuits available all of the time But simply having a variety of fruit, water and some healthy nut bars, can help people to sustain their energy. This not only prevents people from getting into energy peaks and troughs which actually induce internal stress for the body but also makes them more alert.
Encourage breaks. Energy is created by oxygenating the body. Simply encouraging staff to get some fresh air actually creates a greater level of energy in the body and can help to reduce feelings of stress. It is challenging when running a business to spend time with each employee, but by encouraging staff to talk to each other and by fostering community and allowing open and honest communication, respect and self-esteem can be further developed.
For a long time, the emphasis on making improvements in the workplace has been on increasing opportunity and making physical adjustments. These are important. However, simple measures such as helping staff to accurately pinpoint what their actual issues are can be a way of reducing work-place stress and creating a more productive workforce.
Semmer, N K., 2007. ‘Psychology of Work and Organizations, Recognition and Respect (or lack thereof) as predictors of occupational health and well-being. [online] Available at: https://www.who.int/occupational_health/topics/recognitionrespect140207.pdf Accessed: 20th February 2020
Tessema, M., Ready K J., and Embaye A, 2013. ‘The Effects of Employee Recognition, Pay, and Benefits on Job Satisfaction: Cross Country Evidence, Journal of Business and Economics. [online] Available at: https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/d999/306d685a85cbe2232a844f8415a689e985f0.pdf
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All of us are under pressure at some point in our lives. Chronic, or long-term stress is often the result of high-expectations; usually in a job role. Other ‘acute’ moments of stress may be single-events. This could be having to give a speech, make a presentation, or meet a tight deadline. It is how we deal with the pressure that is important, and that which has captivated psychologists in recent years.
Most people can be divided up into two camps. There are those with a ‘positive’ stress mindset and those with a ‘negative’ stress mindset. If you ever attended university, you might recognise the positive stress-heads. The ones who crammed an entire paper or exam’s worth of notes into one long-night before the deadline. These are the people who tend to think of stress as a challenge. They use it as an opportunity to strengthen motivation, sharpen the mind, and really achieve something.
In contrast, those with ‘negative’ stress mindsets view the entire phenomenon as unpleasant and negative. Not surprisingly, this view is harmful to the body. People with negative mindsets are more likely to engage in self-deprecating humour, which actually invokes more distress. Worse, they tend to go into a situation admitting defeat. When a person already has low expectations of themselves and the work they are doing, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The sufferer tends to sink down to those low expectations.
It isn’t surprising that positive mindset-people are less likely to be stressed out in the wake of difficult life events. But there is hope for their negative peers — because there are ways to unlearn the negative mindset. For example, after listening to a presentation on how stress is actually a good thing, even the most negatively minded people performed better when placed under stressful situations.
Another — albeit strange — remedy for negative stress is to get scared instead. Studies have shown that watching horror movies can temporarily calm the brain, and “recalibrate” emotions. In fact, the more stressed a person was before watching a film, the calmer they felt afterwards.
Time pressure also has the curious quality of being able to make people act more like themselves and to improve decision-making. One study by Fandong Chang and Ian Krajbich forced their volunteers into making tough decisions with money. The more selfish individuals acted more selfishly under time pressure, and the more prosocial people acted more socially. Perhaps crucially, the same study found that, under great time pressure, the experts often make the correct decisions.
Impending moments of acute stress can be very unpleasant, even for more positively minded people. Impending moments can be as varied as a surgeon waiting to go into surgery theatre, to a singer anxiously stepping out in front of a large audience to perform.
What can make the difference between thriving and choking? Research suggests that a text message from a close friend, family member or partner really can help a lot. One study, carried out by psychologist Emily Hooker, found that a simple text message can help to reduce heart rates and blood pressure. The message doesn’t even have to be particularly supportive! Even generic messages work, as long as they remind the brain that there’s someone out there who cares, regardless of what it is they are saying. In the event that no message is received, just visualising someone who you can rely on also works to calm the brain.
Other, not-so-obvious ways to bring down stress in the workplace is to simply make support services available. In a similar way to the mundane text messages above, employees don’t even have to use any of the services for their stress levels to drop. Just knowing that there are counsellors or equipment, or systems in place is enough to reduce the negative mindset of stress.
A common occurrence in high-profile sporting events is for a sportsperson to suddenly choke under pressure. This phenomenon happens when the pressure becomes overwhelming and can lead to a rapid deterioration in technical ability. Male athletes are more than twice as likely to choke when the pressure gets too much. This is because men suffer bigger spikes in the stress-related hormone cortisol when they become stressed.
But there is another stress-related phenomenon in high-profile sports that you might not know about. It is the opposite of choking — psychologists call it ‘clutch performance’. Athletes who experience clutch performance excel under pressure, not the other way round. An analysis of athletes who all showed signs of clutch performance reported feeling completely involved in their task. They become unaware of everything except their objectives — even the audience. But the most important thing that each of the athletes described was this: in such circumstances, they visualise success and never thought about what the consequences would be if they failed.
This feeds back into recent research carried out by the psychologist Vikram Chib. Vikram concluded that altering how you look at the stakes can dramatically reduce the chances of choking. It really is mind over matter, in many cases.
If you are reading this, there is a good chance that you have either a ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ stress mindset. This can greatly determine your behaviour in times of pressure. The former naturally have it easier, but not to worry. Negative stress can be unlearned and even turned into a positive thing.
There is still much research to be done but, in the meantime, if you happen to be facing a particularly difficult situation, why not try embracing it — as an opportunity to thrive, develop and grow — and imagine first and foremost, that you have already succeeded?
This article was written by Neil Wright of De-Risk, a strategic programme risk management company based in Surrey, UK.
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