Taking stress out of the workplace

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  • Picture of Richard Martin
    Richard Martin
    Mental health champion, author and campaigner. Former lawyer now working to improve workplaces.
  • Mental health
  • Health & wellbeing
  • Fellowship

We are suffering an epidemic of stress. But, says Richard Martin, FRSA, it doesn’t have to be like this. His work helps people think strategically about mental health and wellbeing within their organisations. And he asks, what if we were mindful of the impact of our behaviours not just on our colleagues, but with everyone we do business with?

We know stress is bad for us. Short term, the triggering of our amygdala means our cognitive functioning is impaired, as the blood supply on which our prefrontal cortex depends is redirected to fight or flight. Long term, persistent stress can cause physical and mental illnesses and is one of the biggest health risks for professionals in particular. If we are serious about building healthy and sustainable workplaces and cultures for the future, we must focus on stress, and yet it will surprise no-one to hear that reported levels of stress are increasing.

Stress is different from pressure. We thrive on pressure. The right amount can put us in that state of high-functioning flow where we perform at our best. Too little pressure and many of us become inactive and inefficient. Stress is something else – that feeling that you may not be able to cope, that the demands being made exceed our resources, that more is being asked of us than we can do.

It can come from many sources. Sometimes, perhaps when we are juggling a heavy and demanding workload with a range of personal issues, too much really is on our plate, and then we (ideally with the help of a colleague, boss or friend) need to think through what we can do to reassess, offload or share some of the demands, and what other resources we might need to enable us to cope.

Some stress comes from how we think. So many of us fall into the trap of being perfectionist, of catastrophising and personalising. So unless I get this article perfect then it will be a disaster, I will be the laughing stock of the fellowship, it will all be my fault and it will reflect upon and define me as a person.

It might come from the environments in which we work and live. There is often a fine line between high pressure and stress and we can all imagine work environments where the risks of falling into stress are high, or personal situations where that is the case – sick loved ones, an abusive partner, poor housing, struggling to pay the bills.

Or stress may come from how we interact with each other. Most of us are kind and don’t mean to cause each other stress, but we do, and then we don’t talk about it. Late-night garbled emails, unrealistic deadlines, slipping a meeting into our diary in that only gap we had in our day to get up from our desk to move or eat. Some of this happens in our organisations and we might be able to say something about that. But it’s much harder when it happens between  organisations – perhaps coming from a major client.

Many of us will have grown up in stressful work environments where we were told, expressly or implicitly, that this is just how it is. Suck it up and deal with it. The suggestion is that there’s nothing we can do about it.

But… what if we could? What if we made a conscious effort to be more thoughtful, more mindful of the impact of our behaviours on the people we interact with, not just in our organisations but with everyone we do business with? And what if we gave each other the permission (and a framework and language) to talk about it? We might identify some of the unnecessary causes of stress and remove them, and in so doing create healthier and more effective ways of working.

We know stress impacts our cognitive functioning so we shouldn’t want a colleague, client or supplier to be stressed – it isn’t good for them, but it isn’t good for us either because their thinking and their work will suffer.

The Mindful Business Charter is a movement of like-minded businesses trying to address this unnecessary stress through openness, respect, collaboration and shared learning. It offers that framework and language, and some straightforward ideas, for how we can help each other to work more effectively, and gives people the permission to be brave and to ask for what we need (and challenge what we don’t need) to enable us to work effectively.

That sense of shared purpose and learning resonates strongly with the work of the RSA. I’d love to hear from anyone interested in contributing to the conversation and enhancing the collective wisdom. Although the movement began in the legal and financial services professions in the UK, the issues it is seeking to address, and the tools to do so, are universal in nature. It is becoming increasingly global and extending well beyond those sectors. We know we don’t have all the answers, and probably not all the questions either, but we also know that the greatest progress will be made through that collaboration and shared wisdom and learning.

Richard Martin is the Director of Health and Wellbeing at workplace behaviour consultancy Byrne Dean. He also co-chairs the steering committee of the Lord Mayor of London’s This is Me campaign, using personal storytelling to reduce the stigma around mental illness. His book, This Too Will Pass, tells the story of his own mental breakdown, and what he did next

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