Stress, anxiety and depression affect more than one in five employees in Australia according to the recent report, Investing to Save, developed by Mental Health Australia and KPMG. In fact, the cost of stress-related absenteeism and presenteeism (turning up when unfit to do so) in the workplace is estimated to cost the Australian economy $60 billion a year. So what are some strategies for dealing with stress at work? And what can employers do to minimise stress and support their teams?
1. Learn To Recognise The Symptoms Of Stress
Stress manifests itself in so many ways, both physically and mentally, and to be able to effectively deal with it we first need to be able to recognise when it’s actually affecting us. Many people claim they don’t ‘feel stressed’ but may not associate disrupted sleep patterns or feeling unable to concentrate as symptoms of stress.
Try and learn to recognise these cues as indicators of your mental health. It’s also important to recognise that when we’re stressed we interpret and react to things differently. We’re all hard-wired for survival but stress exaggerates the fight or flight response. This often means that we perceive more ‘threats’ and are therefore more likely to react defensively to a situation. If we are able to become more aware of our stress levels, we are more likely to be able to compensate for this and reduce the chance of over-reacting to a situation. Viewing a situation as a challenge rather than a threat can increase our sense of control and help mitigate the stress response.
As an employer, equipping yourself with the knowledge and tools to recognise stress in your employees can be invaluable. The Standard Mental Health First Aid course, developed by Mental Health First Aid Australia, is an excellent resource to help you or members of your team recognise the signs and symptoms of poor mental health and ultimately help you in effectively dealing with stress at work. You could even consider implementing a peer support program and designate someone to be a Mental Health First Aider.
As Gary Belfield at KPMG highlights in the ‘Investing To Save’ report: “Our detailed review of the evidence suggests that interventions such as enhanced job control, resilience training and stress management can deliver significant improvements in employee mental health. Overall, we found that such workplace interventions can generate return on investment of $1.30 to over $4.70 for every dollar spent.”
2. Learn How To “Self Distance”
When we find ourselves in difficult circumstances at work, if we are criticised or caught up in a disagreement, we can find ourselves ruminating endlessly about how this is making us feel and our emotions may get the better of us.
A good technique to mitigate this self-immersed perspective is what we call self-distancing. This is where you take a step back and try to view yourself and the situation more objectively. Research suggests that people who are able to adopt this approach display fewer physiological signs of stress, experience less emotional distress and are able to make better sense of their reactions to a situation. And the good news is that we can all learn how to do this.
As an example, if you are involved in an argument your instinct may be to replay the situation to yourself and others and focus on how it makes you feel e.g. “I’m so hurt that she said that about me!” or “I’m so angry that they took credit for that!” Although it can be beneficial to reflect on our emotions, we can also become ‘caught up’ in our emotional response, resulting in an unhelpful cycle of rumination that serves to maintain or even exacerbate distress. By trying to shift your perspective to that of a third person – for example, imagining an independent observer and considering how they might perceive the situation – you might be able to reflect on the wider issues more objectively. Changing your perspective can have a powerful effect on how you behave, think and feel.
3. Adopt A Shut Down Ritual
We all experience stress and anxiety at work to some degree, with some days being more stressful than others. One technique I have personally found useful in mitigating the stresses of the day is adopting an end of day ‘shut down’ ritual, as described by Cal Newport in his book ‘Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World‘. These simple but effective routines can help to calm your over-active brain and get you out of work-mode.
The process can be broken down into two parts – the ‘End Of Work’ ritual and the ‘Arrive Home’ ritual. With the ‘End of Work’ ritual try and start your wind down about 15 minutes before the end of your work day. Your ritual should include things that are unique to you (e.g. cleaning your coffee cup; doing a final check in with staff etc.) but there are two essential steps:
- focussing on writing a to-do list for the next day so that your brain knows that you’ve got a plan for those things for the next day at work; and
- using a ‘termination’ phrase when you have completed the ritual. As strange as this may sound, this lets your brain know that you have already ticked off everything from today and have a plan to move forward with what you need to do tomorrow. If you find work intruding on your thoughts after hours, you can remind yourself that you wouldn’t have said the termination phrase without having checked off where everything is up to. Over time, your brain learns to trust in this process.
Obviously it depends on the type of work you do, but your End of Work Ritual might look something like this:
1. Final check of emails
2. Check schedule for the next day
3. Write a To-Do List for the next day
4. Tidy desk
5. State the ‘termination’ phrase: “shutdown complete” (or whatever works for you!)
The ‘Arrive Home’ ritual lets your brain know that you are ready to relax. An important cue can be to change out of your work clothes. It can also be useful to do a task that is not part of your normal work day. For example, if you look at a computer for much of your work day, try not to stare at screens when you get home. Try spending time mastering a hobby. Getting your brain focussed on another task and working in a different way is an excellent way of interrupting work rumination: learn an instrument or take up painting!
My ‘Arrive Home’ ritual looked a bit like this:
1. Change clothes
2. Walk the dog
3. Put on some music
4. Practice juggling (really! Although I’m still not very good at it…)
We all face challenges in our jobs but finding effective mechanisms for dealing with stress at work and helping to avoid carrying it around outside of work is the first step to developing mentally healthy and resilient workplaces.
At Head Strong Workplaces, we deliver a number of the highly acclaimed Mental Health First Aid courses developed by Mental Health First Aid Australia. In addition to the well-regarded 2-day Mental Health First Aid course, we offer short courses in our Mental Health Essentials series that focus on specific topics or needs, such as mental health for managers, substance abuse or trauma exposure response. We can also provide tailored courses if there is a particular mental health topic or need in your workplace.
You may also like to consider our peer support programs, coordinated mental health training programs that can assist the development of a supportive and healthy attitude within teams and embed a genuine focus on employee mental health and wellbeing in your workplace. If you are an employer who is keen to provide proactive support for your team to develop positive mental health at work, Head Strong Workplaces can help.
If you would like further support with dealing with stress at work and helping develop a mentally healthy, resilient workforce, give the team at Head Strong Workplaces a call today on 0438 770 850 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.