The statistics on stress don’t make for happy reading. It’s been called the ‘health epidemic of the 21st century’ by the World Health Organization, costing American businesses up to $300 billion a year. In the UK, 39% of people who are signed off work for health reasons are suffering from stress.
Our foraging ancestors honed their ability to react almost instantaneously to threatening situations. While stress responses can be perfectly healthy when they’re brief and acute, the converse is true; chronic stress is incredibly unhealthy. Think of the analogy of an elastic band: it can be extended to several times its length, but if you stretch it for long enough, it reaches a point where it won’t spring back to its original size. If your body is in a continuous state of heightened arousal, you’ll find that you can’t switch off.
In my book Workstorming, I refer to four modern-day strategies that we employ to cope with the demands of daily life. But, when strung together over weeks, months or years, we pay a heavy cumulative price:
- Firstly, there’s STACKING, which is about the way we manage our TIME. To cope with the ever-increasing demands on us, we fill every available space in our calendar, leaving few – if any – pauses between them. This in turn can leave us in a state of overwhelm. In the same proportion that we cram our calendar, we sacrifice opportunities for recovery.
- Secondly, there’s SPINNING which is the way we manage our ATTENTION. Our modern-day attention span is embarrassingly capricious. Each time we find a new source of stimulation, we get the reward of a small dopamine hit, but the chemical process doesn’t stop there; our body increases production of the stress hormone cortisol and the fight-or-flight hormone adrenaline. What’s more, in our effort to focus our emotional and mental energy on the new moment – and let go of the last one – we consume oxygenated glucose, which is exactly the fuel that our brain needs to think clearly. When repeated hundreds of times daily, we experience an inexorable rise in stress and fatigue, and erosion in our decision-making abilities.
- Thirdly, there’s SKIMMING, which is the way we deal with INFORMATION. We’re consuming five times more information than we did in 1986 – equivalent to 175 newspapers a day – but we pay an energy tariff for extracting the wheat from the chaff. Not only do we need to decide which information we’ll ignore, which we’ll pay attention to now, and which we’ll come back to later, but we also need to decide what we’re going to do with it. Even small decisions take a levy on our energy reserves.
- Finally, there’s SPILLING, which is the way we collapse our BOUNDARIES. Each time we read our emails during a meeting or check who’s sent a text message during a meal at home, we erode the boundaries – and the sacred spaces – between tasks, relationships or domains of our lives. This is now endemic; for example, a study of employees in small to medium-sized businesses across the USA found that 55% of workers check their email after 11 p.m.
If we allow them to become a way of life Stacking, Spinning, Skimming and Spilling are wrecking balls for wellbeing. As leading occupational psychologist Rob Archer says: ‘In situations of high demand, recovery is essential. If we become chronically stressed, it harms our performance in the short term and our health in the long term.”
So, what can we do to reclaim control? The good news is that we can make small, immediate changes to our daily routines. For example:
- When you plan your day or your week, fiercely protect the spaces between commitments. These are your recovery periods. If you have 10 minutes between meetings, don’t use this time to scan emails. Go for a short walk, breathe the air, or do something that feels markedly different from what comes before or after it.
- Say ‘no’ more often, or at least negotiate the terms of requests. If you feel overwhelmed, you probably hate saying ‘no’, but people (and especially family) aren’t going to thank you for the additional stress. You probably have more room to negotiate than you think.
- Seek periods of uninterrupted time each day to focus on a single activity. For example, turn off your email while working on a document so that banner messages don’t flash up on your screen, and only have one document open on your computer at a time. In a home context, ensure you do something daily, even for a short period of time, that brings you joy. The more it absorbs your attention, the better. This is the underlying principle of mindfulness.
- Turn off your emails when you leave work. In doing so, you strengthen the boundaries between home and work. If someone needs to reach you urgently, they can call you.
As the pressure goes up, our instinct is to squeeze out recovery time. This is a fatal mistake. The busier we get, the more we need to find corresponding opportunities to slow down. As the old Zen saying goes: ‘Meditate for 20 minutes a day unless you’re too busy, in which case meditate for an hour.’
Employees Reveal How Stress Affects Their Jobs https://www.businessnewsdaily.com/2267-workplace-stress-health-epidemic-perventable-employee-assistance-programs.html
Levitin, D.J., The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload, Penguin Books, Great Britain, 2015.
Rob Archer, the Career Psychologist, http://www.thecareerpsychologist.com/