In the UK, April is Stress Awareness Month. Since 1992 April has been a chance for health care professionals and health promotion experts from across the country to join forces and increase public awareness about both the causes and cures for our modern stress epidemic and deliver advice on managing stress. It is time for us to find ways to turn stress and negative energy into creative energy to help us generate new ideas, solve problems, and think in inventive ways.
Let’s be honest, we’ve all experienced it: the wave of stress hormones flooding our systems, clouding our judgement and raising our blood pressure. Our heart rate increases, our breath quickens and our muscles tense for action. It’s fight or flight time. It causes headaches and heartburn, it can weaken our immune system and eventually, if unaddressed, could lead to depression. Any article that talks of the effects of stress on the body makes for harrowing reading, it can and does have a massive impact on the body as well as preventing us from doing our best work. So, how do we cope when our working environment is stressful and imposing stress upon us?
The reason the question is phrased in that way is simply because it is vitally important we recognise the differences between internal stresses and those imposed upon us. For example, are you stressed because you feel you aren’t delivering your very best work or because of challenges in working with colleagues and rapidly approaching deadlines?
“All the relaxation exercises in the world will probably be unable to help people with these internal ‘I MUST perform well’ demands,” says Professor Stephen Palmer, co-author of ‘How to Deal With Stress’, Founder and Director of ManagingStress.com and internationally-recognised expert in the field of stress management. “In fact, when people are feeling appropriately challenged they often feel excited about accomplishing a task, whereas when they are stressed they usually experience a range of negative thoughts, feelings and physical sensations.”
“Therefore, the key to managing stress is to become skilled at balancing your workload and finding your optimal zone,” continues Professor Palmer. “Stress is a part of life, and there are times when you feel you can’t live with it, but learning to manage it is a useful skill for life.”
Professor Cary Cooper, the other co-author of ‘How to Deal With Stress’ and Professor of Organisational Psychology & Health at Manchester Business School, worked with the NHS on 10 stress-busting suggestions to help you manage your personal stress levels and stay in your optimal zone. They explain the importance of taking control of the situation, connecting with your colleagues and friends and not being afraid to take a step back to focus on yourself. “In life, there’s always a solution to a problem,” says Professor Cooper. “Not taking control of the situation and doing nothing will only make your problems worse. If you remain passive, thinking ‘I can’t do anything about my problem’, your stress will get worse. That feeling of loss of control is one of the main causes of stress and lack of wellbeing.”
So, what are some the best things that you can do for managing stress levels? How can you stay in your optimal zone and remain positively motivated and not burnt out? Outlined below are six of the Professor’s key tips:
1. Be active
Exercise won’t make your stress disappear, but it is great for your physical health and fitness. Evidence shows that it can also improve your mental wellbeing. It can reduce the emotional intensity you’re feeling and help you work through your thoughts and feelings more calmly.
2. Connect with people
“If you don’t connect with people, you won’t have support to turn to when you need help,” says Professor Cooper. “Talking things through with a friend will also help you find solutions to your problems.”
3. Have some ‘me time’
The UK works some of the longest hours in Europe, meaning we don’t spend enough time doing the things we really enjoy. “We all need to take some time for socialising, relaxation or exercise,” says Professor Cooper. “Set aside a couple of evenings a week for some quality ‘me time’ away from work. It means you won’t be tempted to work overtime.”
4. Challenge yourself
Set yourself goals and challenges, whether at work or outside, such as learning a new language or a new sport. It will help to build confidence and resilience. “By continuing to learn, you become more emotionally resilient as a person,” says Professor Cooper. “It arms you with knowledge and makes you want to do things rather than be passive.”
5. Avoid unhealthy habits
Don’t rely on alcohol, smoking or caffeine as your ways of coping. Long-term these crutches won’t solve your problems, they’ll likely just create new ones. “It’s like putting your head in the sand,” says Professor Cooper. “It might provide temporary relief, but it won’t make the problems disappear. You need to tackle the cause of your stress.”
6. Work smarter, not harder
Working smarter means prioritising your work effectively, concentrating on the tasks that will make a real difference. Here at Dropbox, we champion creative energy and finding your flow. Critical to this endeavour is to be free of distractions, happy and free of stress. This is where your best work is created and your creativity is at its peak. To find out how our customers reduce stress and do their best creative work, read our customer stories.
Stay tuned this month for further advice from experts on stress in the workplace. Expect to hear from managers on managing workplace stress so you can get the best from teams, and from individuals on their personal tips for coping with stress at work.