There’s no doubt that conversations about stress and mental health have become less of a taboo in workplace settings across the past few years, especially since the pandemic. Celebrities and sportspeople have helped turn the dial on mental health awareness, by speaking honestly about their personal experiences and encouraging us all to do the same.
Sometimes though, it can be hard to spot when stress starts, especially in challenging times. For example after the death of my grandfather, I didn’t realise I was carrying stress until 18 months later, when a crushing, 14 week migraine came to stay. When my grandfather passed away, I had a 2 year old and a 4 week old baby and had jumped into the ‘I’m fine!’ mode of life, pushing my grief to one side.
But when we ‘keep calm and carry on’ our body still carries that stress. We can try to appear as if it’s business as usual, but over time our behaviours and physical health start to change.
When we are under stress our brain immediately jumps to the worst-case scenario as we are in a ‘fight or flight’ state.
Here are three signs of stress to look out for.
1. Behaviour change
When we are under stress, our brain can get hyper focused on what it perceives needs to happen. A stressed individual can get fixated on a deadline and even get aggressive, when usually they are placid and laid back. You may notice someone skipping lunch, staying late and constantly talking about the thing they perceive as needing to happen.
The chattiest person can go quiet. The softly spoken, quiet person may shout. Someone who always attends office socials may suddenly decline. The changes may be slow or rapid, depending on the severity of the stressful situation.
2. Change in physical appearance
Someone may rapidly gain or lose weight as their appetite changes. If someone is struggling to sleep, they may suddenly be forgetful and vague when they are normally detailed and organised.
When stressed, I dress head to toe in black, when I usually wear bright colours. Someone who dresses casually may suddenly dress in a suit – armour to disguise how they feel. Or someone may lose the care over their appearance as they are distracted by their challenge.
3. Health challenges
Stress affects the brain and gut as both are linked. Do you ever get butterflies or feel sick when you are excited? Our gastrointestinal tract is sensitive to emotion, so a gut reaction can send signals to the brain and a troubled brain send signals to the gut. We have almost as many neurons in our gut as in our brain.
IBS, Colitis and Crohn’s Disease are all exacerbated by stress.
Migraines, periods and menopausal issues, back pain and most other conditions can be made worse by stress. If someone has more time off for any of these conditions, it is worth considering whether something stressful – at home or at work – is having an effect.
When we are also busy it can be easy to get frustrated with the presenting behaviour, rather than pondering whether this is a new thing. If you notice any of the above, it is worth considering whether stress is playing a part in the recent changes.
In our hour of need, it can be such a relief to know that someone has our back.
How can you help and support someone who is stressed?
Always ask twice
When someone is struggling, it can be hard for them to raise this issue. Perhaps they are feeling guilty or ashamed of how they are feeling, or they may worry that they could lose their job. When we are under stress our brain immediately jumps to the worst-case scenario as we are in a ‘fight or flight’ state.
Often when we check in and ask if they are ok, their first reaction will be that all is well. That’s why the ‘ask twice’ campaign worked so well. If we can gently say that we have noticed they are working more or not feeling well and wanted to offer our help, this may be the start of a lovely conversation.
Check if there’s a support network
Make time for this conversation when they are alone and perhaps after a brief chat make time for a longer conversation. Check that they are talking to someone, whether it’s a friend, family member, GP or mentor – and if not signpost appropriately.
Assess the cause of stress before deciding on course of action
If stress levels are due to a short-term issue like moving house or a new job it could be that just talking it through with you will be enough.
For a mental health challenge or something else that is ongoing and severely affecting them, you may need more meetings, additional support, and a wellbeing action plan.
We all have a part to play in managing stress at work
In our hour of need, it can be such a relief to know that someone has our back. To notice and respond when someone is struggling can be so rewarding but it can feel daunting to step into this space – especially for new leaders.
Creating a workplace that feels psychologically safe, where employees can bring their whole self to the office, where someone can speak out when in distress, is a rewarding endeavour indeed and we can all make a difference.
Want more on this topic? Read ‘Are we too stressed to take time to think?’