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Lucinda Carney



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Stress Awareness Month: don’t let pressure become ‘business as usual’

After the year we’ve had, stress may seem natural, but by accepting it, we risk allowing it to boil over.

A year ago, I wrote a piece for Stress Awareness Month which went on to be one of HRZone’s most read articles of the year. It’s interesting to consider whether, 12 months on from the most stressful Stress Awareness Month on record for HR professionals, anything has changed or we’ve simply absorbed these additional pressures and accepted them as business as usual.

Perhaps we have all got so used to the low levels of stress that we are in danger of being simmering frogs ourselves?

As I look back on the wellbeing surveys within my own organisation, it seems startling to note how genuinely concerned we all were about basic things like food supplies (not just toilet roll), as well as job security and the health and wellbeing of those around us. For most of us, the reality wasn’t as bad as the initial fears. This isn’t to make light of the stresses and strains of the past year and the genuine suffering that has taken place, but more to remind us that perhaps this month is an opportunity to pause and take stock of the journey we have been on and the best next steps.

The fable of the simmering frog

Over the past year we have had multiple lockdowns, been separated from shielded or lost loved ones and/or had to homeschool young children while holding down full-time jobs. Too many HR colleagues have worked around the clock to support their businesses, perhaps by managing furlough schemes or redundancies, and have then gone on to lose their own job security. On top of that, access for most of us to our natural stress relieving activities like team sport or socialising have been removed, forcing us to actively seek out other ways to let off steam or simply absorb the low level simmer of stresses and strains.

I know that I have been fortunate compared to many as I live close to open space and have older children so have had less stress than many and considered myself fine. I was, however, recently struck down with a mysterious rash all over my body which turned out to be stress triggered. The reality is that HR professionals are brilliant at putting a brave face on things, and putting themselves last. In fact, we may genuinely believe that we are fine, just because we have got used to the general tempo of pressure.

There is a story about a 19th century science experiment where researchers found that a frog dropped into a pan of boiling water quickly jumped out, yet when they put a frog in cold water and warmed it up slowly over time, the frog boiled to death. This may well be an unpleasant urban myth, but the principle still applies. Perhaps we have all got so used to the low levels of stress that we are in danger of being simmering frogs ourselves and maybe now is the time to give ourselves a mini stress MOT?

Eight common sense questions to ask yourself in the context of now and pre-Covid

  1. How sociable do I feel?
  2. How happy/anxious do I feel?
  3. How well am I sleeping?
  4. What is my physical health like?
  5. How much exercise am I getting?
  6. How regularly do I get outside?
  7. What is my diet like?
  8. How many hours do I spend at my desk each day?

The key point here is considering our own ‘normal’ relative to pre-pandemic times. After a year of on/off lockdown, we have created new habits for better or worse. While some of us have become health nuts from the comfort of our own homes, others may have got into the habit of working 12 hours a day only getting up to grab a chocolate bar or coffee from the kitchen now and then.

The reality is that we all have choices every day about how well we look after ourselves, what we eat, the exercise we take and who we interact with and how. Many of those choices are not made consciously, however, and instead we habitually scroll through energy sapping social media rather than consciously reading quality content, or reach for the quickest easiest food source rather than planning healthy meals or smoothies in advance to access during the working week.

Make time for reflection

Stephen Covey talks about the habit of renewal in his book, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, and suggests that we need to continually renew ourselves in four areas: physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. Physical renewal relates to our exercise, diet and sleep; mental is about having opportunities to learn or utilise our mental abilities; emotional is about social connection with those we care about; and spiritual can be religious or it could be about mindfulness, demonstrating gratitude or feeling connected with nature.

As we reflect on the past year, now is a great opportunity to consider the new habits we have made for better or worse in each of these areas and to recognise that we are able to choose different ones that support us better if we choose. It isn’t about quick fixes, because our current habits will have come about gradually and any changes need to be sustainable.

Could you batch cook some healthy soups at the weekend, buy yourself a lovely new water bottle to keep on your desk, schedule a lunchtime walk with a friend or find a new podcast that feeds your brain while you walk the dog? It doesn’t really matter what you do, but it is worth prioritising wellbeing to keep those stress levels in check for the long term because, let’s face it, none of us want to be simmering frogs!

Interested in this topic? Read Why companies must change expectations in the face of employee burnout.

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