Listen to your alarm bells: the secret to keeping stress levels positive

Stress is like thirst or hunger; it’s a useful early warning system. But, just as thirst ignored can lead to dehydration, stress ignored can lead to mental health problems. Encouraging employees to listen to their alarm bells can keep stress levels positive, says Judith Twycross.

It might sound like a contradiction in terms to use “stress” and “positive” in the same sentence. Surely there is nothing good about feeling stressed? Shouldn’t we be trying to avoid getting stressed?

About the author

Judith Twycross is a clinical manager at employee wellbeing and mental health solutions provider Validium

Well, actually no. Stress is a natural reaction that occurs for one of two reasons. Either we feel like something we really care about, such as an important project or relationship, is under threat. Or we feel like the demands on our time or skills are exceeding our ability to cope.

In both cases, the initial stress reaction is a positive thing because it alerts us to the threat, while the resulting pressure gives us the energy to respond to the challenge.

Even though it can be an uncomfortable sensation, in much the same way that thirst and hunger can be uncomfortable sensations, stress can be seen as a helpful early warning system, telling us to take action of some kind to get rid of the sensation.

Typically, stress motivates us to temporarily stretch ourselves out of our comfort-zone, making us work hard to overcome a challenge, or it encourages us to make changes to our lives that protect the things we care about.

But just as prolonged thirst can lead to dehydration, and prolonged hunger can lead to starvation, prolonged stress can lead to physical and mental health problems. Given that 31% of employees have now been formally diagnosed with a mental health issue, stress is a warning system employers can no longer afford to ignore.

Empowering employees to take action

One of the most effective things you can do to reduce mental health issues is to ensure employees can act on their stress alarm bells.

Although the point at which someone becomes “negatively stressed” varies from individual to individual, with some very resilient people thriving on levels of pressure that others would gladly avoid, common symptoms include feeling tearful or aggressive, struggling to fall asleep or waking up early, loss of appetite or eating too much, becoming more forgetful and error-prone and not wanting to be around others. Physical cues include lack of eye contact, nail-biting, eye-twitching, leg jerking. Mental cues including the individual feeling like everything is against them and no one is on their side.

These signals are clear alarm bells, alerting someone to the need to reduce the pressure they’re under, but many people are now in the habit of ignoring these signals and trying to ‘push through’ for longer than they should.

Employers have a vital role to play in educating their people about the importance of taking action before the negative side effects of stress have a chance to kick in.

Once they start to feel overwhelmed by stress, employees will enter into a “fight, flight or freeze” mode and lose their ability to think creatively or problem-solve in the same way. So it’s important they know that as soon as their stress levels start to negatively impact upon them – triggering their warning signals – they have two options:

  1. In the immediate term, reduce the level of pressure employees are under. This can be by asking for help, handing back some responsibility, giving themselves more time or getting emotional support.
  2. On a longer-term basis, increase employees’ ability to cope. This can be through learning how to extend their emotional resilience and ability to deal with pressure.

In both cases, the more prompt the action, the less chance they will suffer any long-term effects. Just as the sooner you can eat something once you feel hungry, the less chance you have of becoming sluggish or dizzy.

Increasing resilience to stress

Sometimes an individual cannot easily reduce the level of pressure that they’re under. Perhaps it’s an exam they’re taking that only they can pass. Or it is client relationship that only they can deal with.

So, as well as helping employees to avoid putting themselves under unhealthy levels of pressure for too long, it’s also important to educate them how they can stay healthy under pressure.

Throughout the years spent training managers and employees to stay healthy under pressure, we at Validium have identified six “personal energy batteries” that need to be kept charged in order to stay healthy under pressure. These are:

  1. Social. Regular opportunities for quality social interaction with others.
  2. Emotional. Doing things that give you a sense of joy or achievement.
  3. Physical. Nurturing your body by eating well and getting enough sleep.
  4. Mental. Stretching yourself and seeing “failure” as an opportunity to learn.
  5. Mindful. Setting aside time and worries to mindfully enjoy the moment.
  6. Meaning. Living by the personal values that matter most to you.

For example, when a colleague of mine decided to take on a much more demanding role at work, to coincide with her son starting secondary school, it was a stressful time with a lot of change happening. Even so, she felt much more overwhelmed than she should have. Instead of ignoring her feelings and trying to “push through”, she heeded her alarm bells and took stock of her resilience batteries.

She soon realised that her social energy, which had been topped up by chatting to other parents at the school gates, when collecting her son from his primary school, had completely gone, leaving that battery almost empty.

Although the other batteries were running high, she made a concerted effort to reconnect with some of the people she used to talk to on a daily basis and set up a professional network to allow her to regularly interact with other like-minded people through work. As soon as she felt that social battery recharging she became much more emotionally prepared to meet the new demands being placed upon her.

Empowering managers to help

By educating people about the importance of keeping their resilience batteries topped up and empowering them to reduce the pressure they’re under when needed, you can support them to stay healthy.

Critical to this is educating managers to view managing the mental health of others as one of their people management duties. This is important because many employees can feel reluctant to open up about personal pressures they’re facing, so the onus is often on their manager to recognise the warning signs that they’re not coping and help them to identify what they or work can do to reduce the pressure.

Only by ensuring stress isn’t allowed to go unchecked, any more than hunger or thirst, can we start to give employees the timely support they need to sustain good mental health.

How insurer QBE supports staff to stay healthy

Caroline Fraser describes how business insurer QBE gave managers a clear process for supporting employees with a mental health issue.

Once an issue kept behind closed doors, mental health issues are finally being discussed openly in the workplace, so we wanted to provide some training to make sure managers knew how to respond.

We were particularly keen to make sure they knew their role in managing mental health as some manages were reluctant to help someone with a mental health issue, for fear of becoming personally involved. While other managers had already crossed over that line, even taking calls from distressed employees at 2am.

At the same time, we wanted the training to help increase awareness of the breadth of support services already in place. For example, our mental health first aider initiative, partnership with a mindfulness app and the fact that the EAP wasn’t just a counselling hotline for someone in crisis, but also a useful resource for employees affected by money worries, legal disputes and childcare or eldercare issues. All of which might lead to mental health problems if left unaddressed.

We invited Validium, our EAP provider, to design a “managing mental health” workshop to give managers a clear process for supporting team members affected by a mental health issue.

This helped managers understand that their role was to listen with compassion, so that they could help the employee to “self-solve”, direct them towards appropriate support and check in with them to make sure they were making progress.

Following a successful pilot, the workshop was condensed into a two-hour session and rolled out to the entire HR team and managers in London, Chelmsford and Stafford. It was also turned into an interactive webinar for employees who worked in Europe or outside of the office.

Over three-quarters of managers chose to attend. A total of 97% of those who did said the mental health training was a good use of their time and 83% said they felt they now had an excellent understanding of how to manage mental health.

As a result, managers now feel more confident and informed around mental health issues, recognising difficulties, listening compassionately, signposting to the right support and managing absence and return. But most importantly of all, increasing the number of people who are getting help to recover more quickly.

Caroline Fraser is HR business partner for QBE

Mental Health at Work Report 2017

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