This blog, by Dr Juliet Hassard, Associate Professor of Occupational Health Psychology at the University of Nottingham, links to our ongoing work programme on the theme of workplace mental health and productivity. You can find out more about our major research project on this theme, which is funded by the ESRC here
Many people are motivated by the challenges encountered within their work environment. However, when pressure due to work demands, and other so-called ‘stressors’, becomes excessive and prolonged in relation to their perceived ability to cope, this can lead to stress. The concept of stress is often confused with challenge, sometimes leading people to refer to ‘good’ and ‘bad’ forms of stress. However, these concepts are not the same. Experiencing challenges in our work can energise us psychologically and physically and encourage us to learn new skills. Feeling challenged by one’s work is an important ingredient in developing and sustaining a psychologically healthy work environment. However, excessive and prolonged pressure and demands at work that exceed our perceived resources, capabilities and skills to cope are defining components of work-related stress.
Managers and leaders play a key role in preventing and managing work-related stress through designing and managing work tasks and working systems, communicating with and managing their employees with respect and clarity, developing a supportive and psychologically safe work environment for their teams, facilitating return to work processes, implementing reasonable adjustments, and encouraging people to have conversations about their mental wellbeing at work. It is also important to recognise as a leader that you provide yourself with the time and space to support and invest in your own stress management techniques and overall promotion of your wellbeing. Investing in your own mental health and wellbeing is an important resource not only for yourself as an individual, but also supports the promotion of wellbeing at work within your team more broadly. There is, in fact, a growing research base that highlights the wider value of leaders in engaging and communicating the importance of healthy workplace behaviours and working practices. In fact, this has been identified as a key success factor in effective and impactful health and wellbeing initiatives at work (Jiménez et al., 2017; Quirk et al., 2018). Therefore, investing in your own mental health and wellbeing has important value for you as an individual, but also to your team, and for your business, in promoting health and wellbeing at work.
An important place to start is to better understand and identify the early warning signs of stress. Work-related stress unfolds as a process. This process typically begins by experiencing early warnings signs of stress (i.e. stress or strain reactions). Experiencing these stress reactions over a prolonged period of time can result in negative implications to individuals’ physical and mental health. It is important to acknowledge that the way that stress symptoms exhibit themselves is unique for every individual. However, we typically tend to see stress reactions in four key categories: cognitive (reduced attention perception, lack of concentration, forgetfulness), emotional (feeling nervous, irritated easily, annoyed or angered easily, unusually tearful), behavioural (increased aggressive or impulsive behaviour, making more or unusual mistakes at work, drinking more than usual), or physiological responses (increased heart rate, blood pressure and hyperventilation, chronic or excessive headaches). A simple, but useful, exercise is to sit down and to identify what are your individual and unique early warning signs of stress. In particular, it can be useful to try and identify within each one of these four categories some typical examples you experience when you are feeling stressed or strain.
Alongside identifying what your early warning signs are, it is also important to reflect on what some of the triggers to those reactions and experiences might be. As a reflective exercise, it can be useful to think through some recent experiences where you noticed some of these early warning signs of stress. What was happening or occurring during this time? Where these a one-off event or is this a long-standing issue or experience? Equipped with a better knowledge of your triggers and early warning signs you can begin the process of developing your own wellness action plan. This structured process can allow you to identify and map:
- what activities or experiences keep you well and engaged at work,
- what experiences at work may require or benefit from more proactive coping strategies,
- what changes or adaptations to your job might you need or benefit from, and
- what additional supports or resources would benefit you in your job.
The charity Mind has a wellness action plan that is free and is a useful resource to help structure your professional and personal reflections. It may be useful to reflect on this developed action plan with someone you trust. In particular, collectively reflecting on what changes or additional resources may be helpful to support you at work and to enhance your overall work-related wellbeing in the immediate and future.
Alongside these reflective practises and the development of a wellness action plan, the following activities can be useful in supporting your stress management techniques and enhancing your overall wellbeing.
- Enhancing and extend your repository of coping techniques. This will allow you to apply variety of proactive coping techniques across different situations and contexts more effectively. A useful resource are the guides available from the Stress Management Society.
- Practising mindfulness at work can be a useful activity in both managing stress, but also enhancing your overall psychological wellbeing and clarity of mind. More information on mindfulness can be found here.
- Looking after your physical health has immediate advantages for yourself and your mental wellbeing. This can include activities focused on eating well and engaging in more physical exercise and activity. Why not think about whether there are opportunities for you and your team to support each other in being more physically active? What about ‘walking’ Teams meetings? Walking groups at lunch? These group activities provide immediate benefits in terms of increasing employees physical activity at work, but also provide a fantastic opportunity to further develop social support networks within and across teams and colleagues. Some interesting case studies can be found here.
- Take and embrace breaks both short and long. Taking breaks are an important activity in supporting your recovery from work. These breaks can be short, such as stepping away from your desk for lunch or going for a short walk. It can be useful to try and ensure that these opportunities for rest and recovery are scheduled into your day to day working life. However, it is also important to take longer and more substantive breaks for holiday and time with family and friends. These breaks from work give us the opportunity to psychologically detach and switch off from work, which is an important recovery activity in relation to our mental wellbeing.
These are just a few examples of activities or considerations that may help and support in managing stress at work, but also in supporting your overall wellbeing. It’s important that you find what works best for you and to ensure that you prioritise these activities in your work schedule and professional life.
Dr Juliet Hassard
Please note that the views expressed in this blog belong to the individual blogger and do not represent the official view of the
Enterprise Research Centre, its Funders or Advisory Group