This article was written by Jeff Archer, Director of The Tonic Corporate Wellness.
On any given day, in any office around the country, you’ll hear staff complain about how stressed they are. It’s a phrase that trips off the tongue and has become a catch all term for all manner of frustrations at work and beyond. But what do people really mean when they utter these fateful words?
A medical dictionary definition of stress says that it is a condition or feeling experienced when a person perceives that demands exceed the personal and social resources the individual is able to mobilise.
The key phrase here is when a person perceives that demand is excessive beyond resources. This is important because no matter how fleeting this perception may be, the number of times one person or a number of people in a team say they’re stressed, the more likely this will be to dictate the tone of that office.
It’s worth remembering that the stress response is a natural one – a physiological reaction designed to protect us, most commonly referred to as fight or flight. And while a degree of stress or pressure can lead us to stretch ourselves, grow and achieve results that may surprise even ourselves, in many working environments people tend to over-ride the stress response repeatedly which leads to a disruption of the physical and mental status quo. The consequences of this are all too familiar and can include exhaustion, frequent headaches, discomfort in the neck and shoulders, apathy, depression, insomnia, self-medication often in the form of alcohol, or increased absenteeism.
On a more positive note, just as everyone is familiar with what it feels like to be stressed, most employees also know what it’s like to have a great day in the office. A day when energy is flowing, focus is clear, much is being achieved and everything feels positive – the territory that sports people refer to as being in the zone. Unfortunately people are far less likely to acknowledge these moments consciously to themselves or share these positive experiences by broadcasting them openly in the same way as they do when feeling under pressure.
So what makes the difference between being in the zone and feeling as though you’re at breaking point?
Sure, a lot of it is influenced by external factors – often in the form of other people – but in all circumstances, busy or calm, there can be inconsistencies in individuals’ ability to cope, think rationally and get things done. In other words, the perception of the resources available can swing quite dramatically depending on the mood of the moment.
So it’s important that employees do what they can to take charge of their ‘mood of the moment’ and this means businesses fostering a new emphasis on people taking responsibility for the stress they are, or say they are, experiencing.
Here’s what staff need to know to keep stress levels at bay and inhabit their ‘zone’ of peak performance consistently.
1. Eat regularly, eat well
Paying attention to what you eat and when you eat it can be the difference between a calm day feeling challenging, or a challenging day feeling effortless.
Supply your body with too many stimulants – sweet snacks, processed food or high sugar meals – or skip too many meals or snacks, and your ability to perform will be massively reduced. Establish a routine of healthy eating through the day and you’ll be able to cope with anything that’s thrown at you.
Encourage staff to start the day right by eating breakfast, plan meals and snacks in advance, stay hydrated and eat something healthy every three hours. You can make the job of wading through the mass of nutrition information available easier by setting up a company healthy eating plan that provides specific solutions for your audience, their challenges and the environments in which they operate.
2. Get active
Because the stress response is designed to help us fight or flee, the simplest way to manage it, stabilise hormone levels and remain calm is with physical activity.
Encourage staff to get up and move around regularly. Meetings on the go are a great idea and for lasting impact you can organise walking clubs, running clubs or regular fitness sessions. For a fun element, a pedometer challenge with monthly champions always gets people moving.
Give staff access to resources that will help them find an exercise routine that works for each individual. When it comes to effective exercise there are two key areas to consider.
Firstly, provide information and ideas on what people can do. This will include resources suggesting flexible exercise plans and programmes that appeal to a variety of different work and life circumstances.
Secondly, and more crucially, staff need encouragement and motivation on why they should get more active. This advice should go beyond general health information to encompass bespoke solutions for all staff. Most office staff think they should be more active but what really makes the difference is establishing some personal motivation to change. Help staff achieve clarity here and the results can be phenomenal. All it takes for most individuals is a short consultation with a lifestyle expert to establish their priorities, get motivated to work around any barriers and put together a simple action plan.
3. Monitor caffeine intake
We all tolerate caffeine differently but even those who can cope well with its effects should be wary. One or two coffees a day can be beneficial and enjoyable but you’ve got to know when you’ve crossed the line from focused, effective thinking into being distracted, jittery and wired.
Too much caffeine can make people irritable, particularly if caffeine fixes replace drinking water and result in dehydration. Be aware also that lattes and cappuccinos have a sugar content in the milk and this sugar, combined with the caffeine, can create a real rollercoaster for blood sugar, energy levels, concentration and mood swings.
4. Take breaks
While many people feel they don’t have time to take breaks through the day, it can be counter productive to push on through. There is a perception for many employees that they begin each day with good energy and the challenge is simply to see how long they can make this energy last.
In reality, there’s plenty that can be done to top up energy levels throughout the day and taking short breaks is one of the simplest but most effective ways to achieve this. It goes a long way to ensuring you’re taking on the right tasks at the right time and guaranteeing that you end each day with a sense of achievement.
Throughout each day we are all subject to periods of being more and less effective. This is due to a natural cycle of high and low energy, the cycle lasting around 90-100 minutes. It’s vital that we all make the best use of the times when we feel fired up and engaged, and also allocate appropriate tasks to periods when we’re feeling less resourceful.
Encourage staff to get into the habit of dividing every 90-minute period into a few minutes planning, 60-minutes performing key tasks and the remainder reviewing progress, attending to admin that keeps the day under control and taking a short break.
One note here, it’s important to provide strong role models in this area or it can be more difficult to persuade people to adopt new habits. Lead by example, encourage senior staff to do the same and others will quickly follow.
5. Sleep, rest and recover
This is one of the most fundamental areas where people can make small changes and reap massive rewards. On the face of it, grabbing time from sleep here and there may not seem like a big deal but do it too often and for too long and people can find themselves seriously sleep deprived. Mentally, tiredness can cause irritability and compromised performance. Physically, when we’re tired we’re more likely to rely on comfort food and drinks with the result that there may be energy surges but there will also be some dramatic crashes.
Encourage staff to begin actively managing their sleep routine. We all benefit from a regular bedtime and wake time and we need consistency. Staff also need to start viewing some of the choices they make during the day within the context of a successful sleep routine.
Regular healthy meals and snacks, good hydration, regular activity, well managed energy levels through the day and a conscious plan for the evening schedule leading to a good night’s rest will translate into quality sleep. Ignoring these guidelines and allowing what may seem like minor indiscretions through the day to add up to a pronounced cumulative effect can lead to difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep or achieving the desired quantity or quality of sleep.
All the advice so far is all very well you may say, but what about working in an environment where none of this is possible? Where there just isn’t time and the pressure from above to get results takes priority over everything else?
It’s a fair response. We focus on the lifestyle choices that individuals make to put them at the best advantage for dealing with whatever the day may bring. This won’t eradicate every potentially stressful situation, but it does make an enormous difference to how resilient staff become and how well teams are able to interact.
The final thing to consider is that there has to be open communication. A lot of stress in the office is caused by second guessing colleagues, speculating on motives or requirements and making assumptions based on previous experience. All of these may save time in the short-term but often lead to more work being required in the medium-term, and while tackling communication issues at a deeper level may seem daunting for many, those who take the best care of themselves and their energy levels put themselves in a powerful position for creative thinking, clear decision making, effective communication and developing genuine win-win solutions.
Simple stress management strategies
This all may seem like a lot to consider within an already busy schedule so before you anticipate the outcry of ‘oh my goodness, this healthy living thing is making me even more stressed,’ there’s a clear pattern of behaviour that makes managing stress much easier than many people realise.
Fundamentally, all staff need to do is follow the four-stage process:
1. Take regular breaks during the day
2. Use these breaks to take physical activity or consume a healthy meal, snack or drink
3. Review progress regularly
4. Establish priorities for themselves, and priorities to communicate to others
Do this and they’ll feel calm as the day progresses and in control as it comes to an end. This will ensure they can enjoy their evening, relax and unwind in time to guarantee a night of quality and restorative sleep.
So, the key to managing stress levels in any workplace is actually quite simple and can be summed up in three easy steps that every business can take:
1. Raise awareness of successful lifestyle choices
2. Remind people regularly of the key themes and practical actions that make a difference
3. Give them the opportunity to understand and make the choices that work for them
All of this can be quickly achieved with targeted workshops covering resilience, healthy eating, personal performance, effective exercise and sleep, backed up with relevant resources so employees have all they need to make changes, when the time is right. Add in an element of challenge, accountability or teamwork to make it fun and you’ll be amazed at how the atmosphere of an office and the culture of a business can change.