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January 19, 2024

Work Smarter, Not Harder – Transform Your Experience of Work Related Stress

From Burnout to Adventure -
Escaping a Stressful Career to Teaching English in Vietnam

About 9 months before the Covid pandemic hit us, I worked full-time for a London University, single-handedly delivering a complex Employee Health and Wellbeing Programme for 1700 employees. At the same time, I was studying for a Post Graduate Qualification in Workplace Health and Wellbeing.

The irony of my situation was not lost on me. My role at work was to improve the wellbeing of the employees. Yet, I was close to burnout, frantically trying to meet the expectations of my boss and the Board of Executives and spending evenings and weekends churning out 6000-word assignments. No surprise, I was suffering from high levels of Work-Related Stress and something had to change.

One stressful Monday, I complained to a colleague about the relentless pressure I faced daily. He casually replied, “Why don’t you have a break and teach English in South East Asia?”. His flippant suggestion resonated with me, and 9 months later, I began a new career teaching English in  Vietnam.

Sure, my decision to flee the corporate treadmill and move to the other side of the world was extreme to say the least, and I am not suggesting you resign tomorrow. However, consider that prolonged periods of Work-Related Stress (WRS) come at a price and can lead to numerous health issues affecting behaviour, performance, and relationships. And if you hit burnout, you may be incapable of working for months.

So let’s delve deeper into this topic and explore ways to reduce your Work-Related Stress.

Putting Work-Related Stress in Perspective

Whether you are an engineer, retail shop assistant or chef, Work-Related Stress probably affects you. So, what is Work-Related Stress (WRS) after all? Here’s a quote from The European Agency for Safety and Health; “Work-related stress is experienced when the demands of the work environment exceed the employees’ ability to cope with (or control) them”.

Stress isn’t a disease, but if it is intense and continues for some time, it can lead to mental and physical ill-health [1].

The Health and Safety Executive (UK) published the Health and Safety Statistics for Great Britain 2021/22 and the figures are astonshing.

In one year, 1.8 million workers suffered from work-related ill health, which resulted in 31.5 million working days lost. Keep in mind that these are reported cases, so consider that unreported cases would increase this figure significantly.

What’s surprising are the stats on musculoskeletal disorders (e.g. back pain), stress, depression and anxiety (totalling 76%), with only 24% of absences related to flu, cancer, diabetes, etc. Clearly, employers have a lot of work to do around improving the mental health of their workers. And keep in mind that musculoskeletal disorders are often linked to staff sitting incorrectly at their workstations.

Health and Safety at Work. Summary statistics for Great Britain 2023

The Health and Safety Executive (UK) has identified six primary areas of work that can cause stress [2]. Do you recognise, or are you exposed to, any of the following?

  • Demands: when you cannot cope with the demands being placed on you. Are you overloaded with work?
  • Control: You have no control over how you do your work. In other words, you’re told, ‘Do it this way and no other way’. For example, are you encouraged to solve problems and look for new and better working methods?
  • Relationships: Is there evidence of bullying and harassment? A culture of trust should be developed, which encourages constructive and positive relationships.
  • Support: Managers are not providing enough information and support. Are staff given support and encouragement while respecting individual differences?
  • Role: You don’t fully understand what is expected of you, or your Manager is not communicating their expectations effectively.
  • Change: Is your organisation managing change effectively and supporting employees in the process?

 

How Work-Related Stress Affects Your Health and Wellbeing

Work-Related Stress has a wide range of physical, emotional, and behavioural effects on individuals. They can range in intensity depending on your coping mechanisms. For example: 

  • Depression
  • Anxiety disorder
  • Underperforming
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Uncharacteristic errors
  • Not meeting deadlines
  • Exaggerated responses to issues
  • Loss of enthusiasm and commitment
  • Conflict with colleagues
  • Insomnia
  • Absenteeism
  • Struggling to unwind
  • Nervous & stumbling speech
  • Muscle tension
  • Upset stomach
  • Consistent late arrival to work or meetings

Practical Tips for Stress Management

Sit less, move more! Sitting for extended periods is considered sedentary behaviour. *Note that sedentary behaviour is a distinct and separate concept from too little exercise. You can’t magically eliminate the ill effects of sitting all day by going to the gym. The experts say that we should move every 30 minutes. Research findings accumulated over several years have consistently revealed the detrimental effects of prolonged periods of sitting without interruption and the advantages of incorporating breaks into sedentary behaviour. This excellent article from Harvard University Health has top tips to help you get moving.

Eat well: it’s a cliché, I know. But still, it must be said. Stodgy, high sugar and high-fat foods will slow you down, making you feel sluggish, sleepy, and less likely to do your best work. ‘You are what you eat’, so try disciplining yourself to choose wholesome, natural, and balanced vitamin-rich foods.

Build your social connections: In 1938, Harvard University began the longest study on human happiness. Called The Grant Study, the researchers were looking for the answer to a simple question:” What makes a good life?”. They began to track the health of more than 268 Harvard sophomores, and the results were surprising. Researchers learned three essential things. 1) Social connections are essential for our health and wellbeing. 2) Quality social connections are better than the number of connections. 3) Good relationships benefit our brain and cognitive processes. So don’t underestimate the value of grabbing a coffee or lunch with a work colleague because your relationships matter 😊.

Your Emotional Intelligence (otherwise known as EQ): EQ is everything. Do whatever you can to develop it because it gives you the skills to understand and manage emotions. I stumbled across an excellent website which explains precisely what EQ is. Check out com. In short, EQ increases our capacity for resilience, empathy, motivation, reasoning, stress management and communication (the list goes on). Plus, there is a growing trend amongst employers to evaluate candidate’s EQ in interviews.

Monitoring your Mental Health: there is a mountain of evidence on the importance of having good mental health. Go to Sapiens Labs for a free assessment. The site also has a lot of helpful information to help you understand moods, cognition, drive and motivation.

Establish boundaries: 1) Digital boundaries: when you’re on, you’re on! But when it’s your time, and you’re off, your boss and colleagues should respect that, and so should you. 2) Boundaries in the workplace: It is nice to help colleagues, but doing so takes time… and if it affects your work and meeting deadlines, you must start saying no.

Get help: Consider seeking professional help if your mental health affects your ability to function effectively. Also, close friends or colleagues are always there to lend a sympathetic ear. “A problem shared is a problem halved”.

Mindfulness: This ancient practice has its roots in Buddhist traditions and has gained widespread popularity in corporate environments in recent years. If you effectively integrate mindfulness into your life and practice it regularly, your stress levels will plummet. The basic concept is this: paying full (non-judgemental) attention to the present moment, which means being alert to your thoughts, body sensations and environment around you. If done correctly, you cannot dwell on the past (regret things you did or didn’t do) or worry about the future. It also stresses the importance of the mind–body connection and awareness of how your emotions are linked to physical sensations. You can control negative emotions and become aware of positive feelings by tuning in to your body.

Meditation: Learning to meditate is a lifelong pursuit. It takes commitment, discipline and a daily meditation routine. However, the benefits are massive, and I have found it life-changing. It can help alleviate stress, enhance self-awareness, improve concentration and sleep, and reduce age-related memory loss and anxiety (etc). The most accessible method of meditating is Transcendental Meditation – a technique for inner peace and wellness. Hundreds of studies have been conducted on the TM Technique at more than 200 independent universities and research institutions and published in peer-reviewed medical and scientific journals. With patience and perseverance, you can succeed.

Attitude: Here are some quotes from my favourite self-development authors: 

‘Change how you see things, and things will change’ – Wayne Dyer. 

‘The primary cause of unhappiness is never the situation but your thoughts about it.’ Eckhart Tolle.

Maintaining a positive outlook is immensely powerful no matter what happens at work. There will be things you can change at work, which is great – go for it, but learn to accept the things you cannot change (or do not have the power to change) …. Let them go! Focus on your role and productivity, and always strive to be the best version of yourself.

Regular Exercise: I cannot overstate just how important exercise is. Engaging in physical activity decreases stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol. Simultaneously, endorphins are triggered, which release the natural brain chemicals that serve as the body’s pain relievers and mood enhancers. This article from Harvard Medical School provides all the evidence you need.

Track your stressors: note what stresses you out. Record your feelings, thoughts and reactions. This will help you understand your triggers and what action you can take to overcome them.

Nothing is forever: Even your job! (or it doesn’t have to be) 😉. Think about your career in the long term. If you want to stay in your current role, that is fine. But if not, start to plan your escape route, which should include developing your skills and competencies. It’s never too late to begin studying towards a Diploma or Degree. Or do an online course. That’s when doors will start to open for you. In this competitive world, you will fall behind if you consistently fail to 

Continue Your Professional Development. To help you get started, The Open University offers free courses. Check out Extending and Developing Your Thinking Skills. Or what about Personal Branding for Career Success? The sky is the limit when it comes to free online learning. Take a look.

You've Got This

If you are suffering from WRS, remember you are not alone. It can be a nightmare and a challenge many others are facing. But there are solutions. You need to get out there and find them. 

Let today be the day you start to take control of your stress. Choose at least five of the above stress reduction strategies that resonate with you. This is  your journey to a happier and healthier you!

Begin to embrace new ways of working and thinking. Don’t wait to up your game, do it now! 

And be mindful that ‘good’ work pressure is good for you! 😊. It increases your confidence and encourages learning and growth. Equally, be grateful for having a job because it gives you a sense of belonging, puts structure into your life and provides the opportunity for self-development. But, never compromise on prioritising Your Wellbeing at Work because your health must always come first.  

Thank you for reading my blog. Feel free to message me with any comments or questions.