Stress Awareness Week 2022
Anne Huber, Chief of Staff, Profusion
Before we get started with my personal reflections and the lessons that I can share on managing stress it’s important that we define our terms and have a shared understanding of what stress is. Turning to a dictionary we find that stress is defined as
‘a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances’.
I’m sure most of us can relate to that definition, it feels intuitive and right, and it is broadly replicated by healthcare providers including the NHS. Yet I would encourage you to step back and consider this alternative –
‘Stress is a physical and emotional reaction that people experience as they encounter changes in life’.
Why do I prefer that approach? To me, it makes clear that stress is a perfectly natural physiological response to change. You can think of it as an evolutionary tool designed to help homo sapiens respond more effectively to challenges.
It sits well with the idea that there is such a thing as healthy, positive, beneficial stress and that problems only arise when stress persists over the long term. Ultimately we all need to remember one simple fact –
‘stress is a normal feeling…….stress is something everyone feels at times’
Handling and coping with stress is something that we learn over time and most importantly through experience. It is often exacerbated when we feel alone, away from familiar circumstances and of course, people that we love, trust or rely on for support. For me personally, my experiences as an international student were hugely stressful at the time but have stood me in good stead ever since.
Anyone who has experienced the bureaucracy surrounding higher education and the challenges of cross-border learning will know that this is no picnic when you are a long way from home. When I first encountered these issues as an undergraduate in France it felt overwhelming, but of course, I did come through it and when I experienced similar issues as a master’s student in Poland I was much more sanguine and confident that everything would work out. Which it did!
While stress is for many people today (exclusively) attached to work and study we should always be aware that if that is the case then we are the lucky ones. For too many people stress permeates every aspect of their lives. Think of those living with long term illness or impairments, caring responsibilities, low incomes or complex family situations. All managers should be sensitive to the range of external factors that can impact their students or colleagues.
My Top Tips
1. Accept that it is OK to feel stressed. It means that you care. It doesn’t make you a failure, you can and should own up to stress.
2. We need to be aware that persistent stress can have significant negative long term health impacts, we need to take it seriously, learning to identify our personal signals.
3. Given that everyone experiences stress we need to develop our own armour, by which I mean the daily techniques and tactics that work to destress us. It can be as simple as writing a list or going for a walk in the park.
4. We need to practice our destressing techniques regularly, not allowing things to get on top of us before we pay attention, spot the signs, take the steps, see what works best for you.
5. Build networks you can rely on at home and professionally. Know that there are people you can turn to. So much stress develops in isolation. Communication really is critical to perspective and context. This cuts both ways – be part of other people’s networks too.
6. Slightly more professional this one but when it comes to planning projects, workflows or similar always assume that everything that can go wrong will go wrong and most probably that they will all go wrong at the same time as a domestic drama takes hold. In that spirit you will build time and contingencies into your project plans not an unworldly idealised timeline that leaves you chasing the clock and feeling stressed from the very start.
7. Understand what brings you joy and try to build those elements into your routines. We all need balance in our lives so embrace the things and people you enjoy and make sure to make time for them.
8. While so much stress comes from unexpected events and circumstances there is a fair amount that we can anticipate and plan around. If you’re in finance you know the year end is going to be tough, so plan ahead, making sure that you have time to relax.
9. Take regular breaks including proper holidays as well as long weekends, integrate breaks into your daily routine. If your baseline is close to zero then you have bandwidth to spare.
10. In a world obsessed with speed and busyness it is vital that you take time. Stress corrodes our mental bandwidth, meaning that we rush into poor decisions. Take a step back, consider your options, have a cup of tea.
11. If in doubt, break out of your bubble and ask a colleague for a sanity check, brainstorm or some sparring. It helps to get others involved. The goal is always to resolve issues and learn from those difficult situations.
12. However, if you can’t deal with the situation at all, remove yourself from it. Hand it over to someone else (e.g., your line manager, colleague, partner, friend). Recognise that we all have limits. Make sure you hand over everything you know about the situation at hand and the person taking over might even be impressed by how well you briefed them.
Give yourself a break, too many of us feel compelled to pursue supposed ideals in terms of efficiency, productivity and the like, but we are all human, we can all break and we all need to learn to look after ourselves – for the good of all.
Also, remember that there has never been a better time to be open about your experiences and feelings. Our culture is changing for the better, the stiff upper lip is no longer a good look!
Try to always learn from situations good and bad, these are the experiences that will inform your response to the next challenge and will improve your self-understanding.
Embrace stress but also embrace difference, we all handle things in different ways, there is generally not a right or wrong approach. Some colleagues like to step out for some fresh air, some for a beer and others for a cigarette.
Hang on, no, don’t do that, do not swap stress for nicotine, that is definitely not right!