This article was written by Rick Hughes, Lead Advisor: Workplace, British Association for Counselling & Psychotherapy (BACP).
- Taking more time off work than usual
- Greater use of substances such as alcohol, tobacco and drugs (prescription and illegal)
- Increased irritability, poor concentration, reduced productivity
- Deteriorating personal or work relationships, including bullying behaviours
- Becoming more ‘emotional’, moody or over-reactive to what others say
- Starting to behave differently that’s out of the norm
- Changing of eating and sleep patterns
- Physical reactions such as sweating, palpitations and increased blood pressure
- Feeling negative, depressed and anxious most of the time
- Feeling trapped or frustrated … and believing there’s no solution
The need for ‘solution dexterity’
We are all unique human beings, possessing different characteristics and personalities, fed by complex family, work and personal relationships and operating in diverse workplace environments. So the short answer, when it comes to spotting signs of stress amongst employees, is ‘it depends’. And it’s by having this solution dexterity that ensures that the cause and effect of stress and anxiety is not consigned to a medical diagnosis or scripted response.
What are stress and anxiety?
Before we banish ‘stress’ and ‘anxiety’ to the organisational naughty step, let’s first regard them as normal responses to difficult situations. Stress is a response to pressure. Anxiety is often a consequence of or manifestation of feeling stressed. Acknowledging both allows us to ‘work with it’ and seek solutions.
We all know that what’s stress to one person is pressure to another – it’s often about perception and our own personal resilience. We all need some form of pressure at work to motivate us. It’s when pressure exceeds our normal capacity to cope that stress can emerge.
The ABC triangle and the need for empathy
Workplace counsellors often work with clients within an ABC triangle, exploring the ‘Affective’ (how we feel), the ‘Behavioural’ (how we behave) and the ‘Cognitive’ (how we think). But you don’t have to be a therapist to be able to spot the signs of stress or anxiety in colleagues.
The first skill we need to acknowledge is Empathy. It’s not rocket science. The Collins dictionary defines this as ‘the power of understanding and imaginatively entering into another person’s feelings’. We’re often more aware than we think about how we can and do empathise with others.
The (A)ffective Domain
Let’s start with A, the ‘Affective’ domain, how we feel. The easiest entry point to this is to reflect on emotions. We all have them. Some access them more than others. Emotional Intelligence (EI), a concept developed by Daniel Goleman in the mid 1990s proposed that EI could matter more than Cognitive Intelligence or IQ. Being intelligent about one’s emotions taps strongly into empathy.
Workplace counsellors often see clients who say they are feeling ‘stressed’. But ‘stress’ as a word really doesn’t mean much on its own. What are you stressed about, how is it manifested, why are you feeling this now, when does it occur? Answers start to build up a picture, a sort of cause and effect.
Anger is often regarded as one of the most ‘powerful’ emotions and behind it can lie a multitude of triggers. Is the anger about frustration, feeling ignored, being trapped? Peel back the layers further and ‘frustration’ might reveal a tension about wanting to deliver but feeling constrained by someone or something. In this example, the ‘wanting to deliver’ reveals a powerful positive thrust.
This should be nurtured. But the ‘constraining’ part is the limitation, the restrictor. By empathising with the nature of this constraint it might be possible to understand why it exists and in so doing appreciate its existence, so a different reference point can be achieved.
The (B)ehavioural Domain
B stands for ‘Behaviour’, how we behave. We all have different ways to cope with or manage tensions and pressures, some are more positive than others. Substance misuse can be a common unproductive coping mechanism, using an addictive crux to take us out of one situation into a temporary utopia, but it’s not addressing what might be an underlying problem.
Bullying is a behaviour and when its rife it can become an organisational cancer. Causes are complex. Anti-bullying and harassment policies are a pre-requisite but it’s knowing how and why it happens that’s equally important. People bully because it serves them to do so, they get some benefit from it, whether it’s some superiority or authority fix or it gives them some greater sense of self. But at great cost to others.
The (C)ognitive Domain
C looks at ‘Cognitions’, how we think. Much of work is about making decisions, thinking about different courses of actions to achieve a desired result. But sometimes we can find it difficult to think, we get distracted, can’t concentrate, feel we’re all over the place. Or we have negative thoughts, frequent mood changes or disrupted sleep patterns. This can all indicate stress. This reveals an important recognition in identifying stress and anxiety in others. If someone is behaving differently, then there’s often a reason for this. Is this revealing ineffective coping mechanisms to a pressured situation, i.e. stress?
If we take anxiety as a manifestation of stress, then it’s important to recognise the physical responses. This might include palpitations, a faster heart rate and increased blood pressure or ‘butterflies’ in our stomach and bowel problems or perhaps more visibly, increased sweating, reddening and blushing plus muscle tension and fatigue.
At the end of the day, to spot signs of stress in others really requires us to be able to recognise them in ourselves too. When we do spot signs of stress in others, it’s important to remember there is a solution. Workplace counsellors are skilled at helping you identify stress triggers and exploring solutions to reduce these causes or helping you become more resilient with increased coping skills. These specialists can be found within many employee assistance programmes (EAPs) or identified locally through professional associations like the British Association for Counselling & Psychotherapy (BACP).