Stress takes its toll on UK workers: Could flexible working be part of the answer?

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Earlier this year Mental Health UK published a report stating that one in five UK workers (20%) had taken time off work in the past year due to poor mental health caused by pressure or stress.

This is a serious issue. Late last year Fortune magazine reported that stress can severely increase one’s risk of heart disease. Stress is not just damaging our general wellbeing and organisational productivity; it could also be contributing to serous health conditions that can limit our life expectancy. Not only that, but it’s affecting the people around us too.

It is vital that we address this health and organisational crisis. Too often we are ignoring the early warning signs. We try to keep going in the hope that things will get easier. We might start to ‘self-medicate’ with a glass of wine to help us relax at the end of the day, but this is no long-term solution to the underlying cause of our stress.

Unfortunately, there is a cultural narrative we reinforce about what success looks like, and what we must do to achieve it. We don’t want to appear weak, but there are serious consequences of operating from a continuous position of extreme stress.

What can be done about this stress epidemic? And what can you do to protect yourself?

The first thing to say is that if you’re at crisis point today, please see a healthcare professional. If you’re not that at that point, but want to take action now to help you better manage the pressure in your life, try the following:

1.           Breathe  

If you start to feel stressed or panic, your heart rate quickens. In fact, it becomes less coherent and as a result sends chaotic signals round the rest of your body. This affects many other parts of your physiology, including your ability to make decisions. Something as simple as putting regular breathing exercises into your routine will help you deal manage that physiological response to stress before it can impede your performance and wellbeing. For more, check out this blog on breathing better.

2.           Practise shifting your emotional state

Few of us have physical jobs, yet we often end our days feeling exhausted. It’s clearly not physical exhaustion, instead it’s a mental or more accurately emotional tiredness. When we let feelings like worry or anxiety manifest themselves as negative emotions in our body, we are allowing external circumstances to take complete control of our lives. Instead, we can develop the ability to SHIFT our emotional state from a negative to a more neutral or even more positive one.  In the right emotional state, we can prevent ourselves from leaking energy and reduce our tiredness.

3.           Build energy resilience

Once you’ve taken steps to practise your breathing and shifting your emotional state, it’s time to start becoming more aware of what generates and what drains your energy. Try starting to log an energy-bank each day.  It will only take a few minutes to reflect on your day and think about the deposits i.e. what gives you energy each day, and the withdrawals i.e. what drains your energy each day. Once you have done this a few times you will probably start to notice patterns. If nothing in your working life gives you energy, are you in the right job? If the project you just handed over gives you the most energy, should you take it back and hand over something else? This is a very practical step to manage the things in your life that could be triggering a stress response. With greater awareness – and then action – you can move towards the energy-giving parts of your life.

Could flexible working be an energiser?

The Fortune article referenced earlier offered one specific recommendation of an action that could help boost your energy – flexible working. In one study, researchers found that for some people, flexibility in the workplace and promoting work-life balance were associated with a decrease in the risk of heart-related conditions, including heart attacks.  Also, importantly from an organisational point of view, this same study did not find any drop in productivity among those who were working remotely.

It might be worth thinking about the potential for some flexible working, if you identify that office working is something that is draining your energy when you complete your energy bank.

Given the recent studies about the levels of burnout and the consequences of that stress on our health and potential life expectancy, there’s never been a more important time to take action. The three steps above – and maybe even flexible working – are a great place to start.

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