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Values are crucial to our wellbeing but this isn’t well understood; that’s why it’s the theme of this year’s World Values Day on 17th October

Stress is something that we all worry about a lot these days. Four out of five adults in the UK feel stressed in a typical week, according to a 2018 survey by Axa. Stress is said to be the health epidemic of the 21st century.

Many factors are blamed for this – money worries, the “always on” work culture, chronic illness, family breakdown, trauma, and death are among the usual suspects. But there is one word which is all too often overlooked in this discussion - values.

Stress is always with us. It has been our constant companion ever since our ancestors first timidly ventured onto savannahs inhabited by innumerable hungry predators. We can’t avoid being exposed to stressful situations, but if we are aware of our values - of what is truly important to us in our lives - and if we try to live our lives in accordance with those values, we are much better at coping with that stress.

It is astonishing how powerful values can be. A well-known research study has shown that even just thinking about our values keeps our neuroendocrine and psychological responses to stress at low levels (Affirmation of Personal Values Buffers Neuroendocrine and Psychological Stress Responses, by David Creswell et al, University of California 2005).

Values are potent. They give us purpose and meaning. They connect us to who we really are.

Values distress and burnout

So being aware of our values and living our lives in accordance with them has a significantly beneficial effect on our wellbeing. It makes us feel better, and makes us more resilient to stress, no matter what its immediate cause might be.

It works the other way around too. If the way we treat ourselves and others is not in line with our values, then we will become stressed and our wellbeing will suffer.

Take the healthcare sector, where this effect is termed ‘moral distress’ (we might call it 'values distress'). Moral distress occurs when medical staff know the right thing to do for a patient, but institutional or other constraints make it impossible to do it.

For instance, it might be time to withdraw ventilator support from an unresponsive patient. The nurse knows it’s time. The physician knows it’s time. But the family doesn’t. Or when nurses are told to give blood or administer drugs that they know aren’t going to help. 

Moral or values distress is currently a hot topic in healthcare, and is identified as a major cause of the burnout which is increasingly prevalent now among doctors and nurses, causing so many to quit the profession.

The best treatment for these medical professionals is to learn how to cope with and manage their stress by focusing on their personal values (caring and compassion usually feature high on the list), and finding ways to align their behaviour to those values.

They also need to learn to apply those values of caring and compassion to themselves and look after themselves better - even if this just means snatching a 5-minute break every hour or so.

The Ripple Effect

We all suffer from stress in one way or another, and like those stressed medics we often show great compassion to others but not to ourselves. 

As Thich Nhat Hanh, the Zen Buddhist peace activist says:

“Until we are able to love and take care of ourselves, we cannot be of much help to others.”

When we apply our values such as love, compassion, honesty, respect, fairness or kindness to ourselves first and then to others, the impact is so much more powerful, and the beneficial effects ripple in ever wider circles.

The more we are aware of our values and their importance to us, the more constantly and effectively we will put them into practice. The more we practise them, the more positive impact we have on the wellbeing of the whole world. Every action makes a difference.

That is what World Values Day on 17th October will be all about.


 Charles Fowler FRSA helps co-ordinate World Values Day. He is part of the Steering Group of the UK Values Alliance, is Chair of the Human Values Foundation, and was involved in the recent launch of an innovative multi-media values education programme called The Big Think

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