Today is National Stress Awareness Day in the United Kingdom. This is not to be confused with National Stress Awareness Day in the United States (16th April), or indeed National Stress Awareness Month (also in the US and also April). Quite why April is more stressful in the US and November is more stressful in the UK is unclear, but we can only hope for an eventual treaty confirming a “Global Stress Awareness Day” to ease the confusion felt by concerned citizens everywhere.
Joking aside, stress is a serious issue. The overworked adage is that “pressure is good for you, stress is bad for you“. But where does pressure stop and stress begin? More importantly, in a workplace context, what might be viewed as gentle pressure in the mind of a line-manager could well be viewed as a stressful experience by an employee. Indeed, it seems trite to say that too much pressure can itself be stressful.
So how can employees cope with pressure and reduce their stress?
The most common, and very sensible advice, is along the following lines:
- eat a healthy diet – a full nourished body is better prepared to cope with stress;
- reduce caffeine and sugar – although these produce a temporary high, they often result in a crash in mood and energy;
- avoid alcohol, cigarettes and drugs;
- get enough sleep.
As you read this list, take a look around your own working environment. Taking my own office floor as an example:
- healthy meals are theoretically available from our canteen, but somehow the moment never seems quite right;
- tea, coffee, pastries and sweets are often liberally supplied (birthdays, holidays, Mondays, Fridays etc.);
- alcohol and cigarettes are not uncommon; and
- few of us ever seem to get enough sleep, due to demands of work or alternatively small children.
With this in mind, it’s no wonder that the average workplace is a common breeding ground for stress and not great at reducing it either.
What are the alternatives?
As much as we would all like to persuade our bosses that it would be much better for our health, and so productivity, if we worked from a beach in Bali, this is not practicable or realistic.
You can however:
- relax your body – this could be through exercise: not just being gym-conscious or body-beautiful, but simply walking into a colleague’s room when you need to speak to them rather than phoning or emailing them or taking the stairs rather than the lift. Alternatively, you could just take a moment to inhale and exhale a few deep breaths, perhaps with your eyes closed, to just calm the heartbeat and relax your muscles.
- eat as well as possible – most office canteens now offer salads, soups and other healthy options and, with the proliferation of healthy-eating fast food outlets, there is less and less excuse for the grease-burger and chips at your desk (as tempting as it might be on occasion), or for that lunch-time beer.
- listen to your body and your mind – if you feel tired, anxious or tense, this is probably a sign that you need to try and relax yourself in some way. For example, use those moments on the Underground to read something other than a work email, or find a moment in the office to discuss something funny with one of your colleagues – after all, laughter is the best medicine, so they say, and save where actively hysterical, a great defuser of stress.
- finally, if you do find yourself stressed, talk to one of your colleagues or friends – a problem shared is a problem halved. In addition, if one of your colleagues is causing you stress, don’t leave the issue to build up, but address it head on. Talk to them in a calm and reasonable manner and look for non-homicidal solutions that will help reduce that stress.
Can your colleagues help you?
Some might say that we are all stressed enough already and have our own issues to deal with. However, it is often possible to see when a co-worker is starting to feel stressed – they might be irritable, look tired, have bags under their eyes, have difficulty making decisions, start to drink or smoke more, or seem to have lost their enjoyment in life. If this happens, talk to them. Ask them if there is anything you can do to help.
So what should we take away from today?
Other than the fact that there are now so many ‘awareness days’ that a website has been created to specifically keep track of them (http://www.national-awareness-days.com/ – a particular favourite is 24 January 2016, Global Belly Laugh Day), it is that stress comes in many shapes and sizes. What is normal pressure or not even an issue to one person can be damagingly stressful to another. In the workplace, we therefore need not just to look after our own health and resilience but also to keep an eye out for our colleagues.