I don’t know about you, but there have been times recently when I have felt like running away from it all. The thought of escaping from reality feels good to me. I guess I’m feeling a bit stressed.
It’s understandable, given the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, the on-going working from the home scenario and some difficult things going on in my personal life. But usually, as an HR Professional, I can deal with stuff and take things in my stride, so what’s happening to me right now and why am I finding it so hard to handle?
How stress affects us
Our bodies respond to normal levels of stress by naturally regulating the stress hormones of cortisol and adrenaline, so we feel a mixture of excitement and pressure at the same time. We react to things and then return to normal as our body deals with the usual pressures of life. The trouble occurs when we face abnormal strain in our daily routine, brought on by excessive demands at home or work, or both, or life events which happen to us or to others we care about. In these situations, the level of cortisol and adrenaline in our body rises to such an extent that we react in a fight or flight response.
In midlife, all of this can be hard to bear. The Women’s Midlife Health Journal suggests that increased complaints of mood disorders during the menopausal transition may be due not only to hormonal fluctuations, but also to psychosocial stressors that are common at midlife, including employment challenges, ageing parents, adult children with adult problems, changing body image, loss of fertility and its implications, and relationship and sexual difficulties. Most worrying, though, is the impact that the pandemic is having on gender division. According to a survey by the Fawcett Society women are taking on greater levels of stress and anxiety during the country’s lockdown. 61% of women said they are finding it harder to stay positive day-to-day, compared with 47% of men.
Stress in the Workplace
Also, stress and anxiety due to workload and the workplace have become more prevalent in recent years and none more so than right now. A 2020 nationwide study of 2,000 UK employees, conducted by OnePoll and commissioned by FeelGood Contacts found that whether it is being worried about making mistakes (42%), seeing yourself on Zoom (17%), dealing with difficult colleagues and customers (25%) or handling a heavy workload (20%), more staff than ever are anxious about work. Similarly, research commissioned by ‘Mind’ in the UK found that work is the most stressful factor in people’s lives with one in three saying their work-life was either very or quite stressful.
So, what can leaders do to help?
The way we lead and manage others during times of stress and help people to cope with change is so critical. The pandemic has shone a light on leadership and highlighted the approaches that work the best. A recent BBC article pointed to the fact that more than ever before, we are now aware of the huge benefits of compassionate leadership. The traits most often associated with female leaders are proving to be the most effective in combating stress. In the article, Sarah Beale, chief executive of the UK’s Construction Industry Training Board, agrees that there is a “female playbook” when it comes to leadership, one that champions empathy. Yvonne Wassenaar, chief executive of US technology firm Puppet, in the same article, also agrees that female bosses are more open. “What I’ve found is that if you’re willing to be vulnerable – she said- then people are willing to be vulnerable to you, and that’s when you get true dialogue and true progress.” Leaders who listen and take time to understand the stress that employees face are having the greatest success.
I recently interviewed a female CEO on this topic, and she told me that she no longer schedules meetings for herself or her teams between 11.30 am and 1.30 pm so that her teams can spend this time attending to themselves. She knows that staff are using this time to take a walk, have a proper lunch break away from their screens and also relax at this point in the day because they know that it’s permitted. She is doing the same. It’s so strange that we need permission to relax, but if that’s what it takes, then as leaders let’s enable this to happen!
And what can we do to help ourselves to relax?
Many experts use the 4 A’s method to help themselves and others to deal with stress and anxiety.
Firstly, if you can AVOID stress, then you should. Take control, by avoiding people or situations which cause you to feel stressed, when you are at your most vulnerable.
If you can’t avoid the situation or the people, then you can try to ALTER your usual response. Let others know how you are feeling by communicating your feelings openly. Try to alter your usual routine and behaviour to the extent that you won’t be impacted by stress.
Sometimes, you just have to ACCEPT the way things are and forgive. You need to move on from the problem and learn from the situation.
To do this you need to ADAPT your thinking. You can also practice a self-help mantra such as ‘I can do this’ when you are facing a fearful situation and also, try to look at the situation from a different point of view.
I’ve recently added one more to the list, which is to ATTEND to something. I find that putting things off just causes more stress to build. So, I decide which things I can tackle, and I focus, one task at a time. I find that focusing on an activity or a past-time can take my mind off other things. Remember, you just need to take small steps and you should give yourself recognition and praise once you have mastered each one of these techniques.
How to use 7/11 Breathing
Another activity I use is to concentrate on my breathing and I make time to do this to help me through my cortisol and adrenaline response. I use the 7/11 technique, which I was taught a few years ago. It’s very simple but it’s so effective in calming me down when I feel anxious or stressed.
Relax your shoulders and place the palms of your hands flat on your abdomen. Breathe in through your nose, with your mouth closed, for a count of 7 seconds. You should do this nice and slowly. Then pause for a moment and hold your breath. Next, breathe out to a count of 11 seconds, through your mouth, as if you are breathing through a straw. Repeat this until you feel yourself start to relax and regain your composure. I’ve found that I can do this exercise anywhere and I’ve used it many times to calm myself down and make myself feel better.
Give ourselves a break
In the really tough times we are all facing right now, the reality is that we must be kind to ourselves and give ourselves a break. A good sleep pattern, a healthy diet and a bit of exercise are the best allies to stay strong in the face of stress.
One very quick technique, which has been passed on to me through generations of women in my family is to recognise that this will pass. Once I remind myself about this, I do feel better. When I was younger, I had a poster on my bedroom wall which had the quote ‘today is the tomorrow you worried about yesterday’. It helped then, and it helps now.
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