Partner up to tame down workplace stress and anxiety

Person looking stressed

Work may sometimes feel like a sabre-toothed tiger is chasing you. So, is it the employers’ or employees’ responsibility to tame the tiger? Partnering together is key.

By Yana Yevsiyevich-Smith

As a recovering perfectionist, I have more than a passing acquaintance with stress and anxiety. The past month is no exception, beginning a new job in a time of ever-shifting, global realities and unique demands.

In my younger years, as a university student and then a teacher, I thought the key to success was intimately connected and proportionate to my levels of stress or anxiety. As though, somehow, the stress would perk me up to perform my best in a heightened state of awareness. To some limited degree, there’s some accuracy in my line of thinking.

The body’s response to stress 

When feeling stressed, your adrenal glands make and release the hormone cortisol into your blood stream, which causes an increase in your heart rate and blood pressure 1. This triggers the ‘fight or flight’ response in your body, which perhaps had an evolutionary advantage for our prehistoric ancestors.

As pre-historic homo-sapiens roamed their environment, the adrenal system was vitally important to surviving imminent dangers in their surroundings. Responding appropriately to a flutter of a leaf or the crunch of a twig, in a matter of split seconds, could mean the difference between being a sabre-toothed tiger’s lunch and living another day.

In a 2021 Frontiers in Microbiology article, researchers explain that, from an evolutionary perspective, physiological stress response systems have always been indispensable for organisms to appropriately evaluate the stochastic or unpredictable aspects of their environments... 2

...from an evolutionary perspective, physiological stress response systems have always been indispensable for organisms to appropriately evaluate the stochastic or unpredictable aspects of their environments...

And while this stress response system may be useful in escaping the jaws of a sabre-tooth tiger, it can become problematic for our modern, long-term health.  For example, some studies have shown that prolonged stress can affect the nervous system to the point of structural change; it can lead to atrophy of the brain mass and a decrease in its weight. Such structural changes could, subsequently, affect cognition (learning) and memory 3.

Stress in modernity

Placing this within the context of working and living in an age of near constant sensory stimulation and global interconnectedness, stress and anxiety management becomes fundamental. We may no longer run from sabre-toothed tigers, but there’s plenty to keep our stress response systems buzzing.

In our home, it takes an almost superhuman feat of organisation and discipline to maintain a modicum of control over work and home responsibilities. Every Sunday, once our two- and four-year-old sons are tucked into bed, my husband and I spend at least two hours at the kitchen table interrogating our work and home life schedules for the upcoming week:

  • What meetings do you have scheduled for the week that are non-negotiable? Which days do you need to be in the office this week?
  • Who will do the morning drop offs and afternoon pick ups of the boys from preschool/nursery? And who will be making supper on which nights?
  • What’s Nana up to these days and why is the answer ‘not here with her grandbabies’?

The feelings of exhaustion, anxiety and stress are shadows playing within the light.

This begs the question – who’s responsible for wellness, here? As we both work primarily from home, with weekly visits into the office, are we responsible or our employers?

In some ways, as to be expected, we’re all responsible.

Individuals coping with stress and anxiety 

Over the past two weeks, I’ve found the following suggestions from Heather Buckeridge (Aviva clinical nurse consultant) most effective in managing my anxieties 4:

1. Talking to someone 

As someone who speaks nearly as much as they breathe, I found speaking to trusted people a great source of comfort. Sometimes, even saying my anxieties out loud helped me to realise how unrealistic, unfair, unhelpful or plain silly they sounded. This helped me to realise that keeping them as little whispers roaming my mind was draining and emotionally exhausting. 

2. Switch off and laugh on 

It’s rather difficult to be anxious when laughing so hard that your face hurts.

“Laughter,” notes Heather, “is good medicine as it releases endorphins, which are natural chemicals, into your body” and can lift your mood. So, I made a concerted effort to switch off from social media and the news. And switched on some comedy, instead. For those brief hours, the worries melted into the background and allowed me space to be joyful.

Read Heather’s other five suggestions on coping with stress and anxiety here.

What helped the most, however, was my new employer – in ways I did not expect.

Businesses can level up wellness 

There are measures that any size business could take, that may have a considerable impact on employee wellness, with relatively little costs.

1. Listen 

Whether through employee surveys or conversations with line managers, businesses can begin to change their wellness culture by listening. Providing employees an opportunity to share their thoughts on what may be causing their anxiety, how they can be supported and where they could find further guidance is a powerful first step to becoming wellness champions.   

2. Learn 

Informed by employee voice, businesses can craft a wellness program that is appropriate for their needs. This may include creating an online resource centre that educates employees on financial, emotional/mental, and physical health. It may also mean training managers and executives on how to identify, intervene, and support employees who may be struggling.

3. Lead 

Perhaps most importantly, it’s leading wellness through your own actions. This may look like scheduling time for exercise each day, breaking the cycle of ‘presenteeism’ (coming to work while unwell) by resting at home, responding to emails only during working hours, or creating a safe space to discuss anxiety/stress by creating healthy boundaries. Seeing leaders in the business caring for themselves may encourage a culture of wellness.

We may no longer need to run from sabre-toothed tigers, but it’s comforting to know that my line-manager and employer are watching my back— just in case.

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