Stress. We can’t live with it and we can’t live without it. So how do we tackle it?
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Stress and what it means for your workforce

Stress – the big ‘S’. An often confused word we see daubed on sick notes and fit notes by well-meaning GPs across workplaces the world over (if the UK is anything to go by). The proverbial gorilla in the board room. We can’t live with it and we certainly can’t live without it.

The first challenge is to ascertain what we actually mean by ‘stress’ in the context of mental health and wellbeing. It’s not a disease or a diagnosis, although it’s often used as such when it begins to be an issue – a slang term for mental illness akin to saying psychosis is ‘being a bit upset’. Managing stress is a delicate balancing act between maintaining the right amount of pressure to keep us motivated and on task, and a state of chronic burnout that’s becoming all too familiar in financial services. The line between the two can be surprisingly faint. We’re expected to be able to handle stress as part of any role in a high-pressure industry, but it can also be more of a perceived state than a concrete reality – a lot comes down to the individual, their skills and circumstances. And it’s not just limited to employment either. Many use work as a distraction from chaotic personal lives and family breakdowns, and this can trap them in a vicious cycle. The effect is cumulative and as long as you keep piling it on top of shaky foundations it’s likely to catch up with even the toughest corporate characters, leaving employers open to suffer the effects of lost productivity caused by absences and staff turnover.

Where unchecked stress leads

We all know someone who seems overwrought even when things are running smoothly. This in itself isn’t an issue, but over time it can start to chip away at our defences and cause them and others to feel out of control and vulnerable to collapse – physical or mental (or both). You can’t catch stress, but even an air of tension can cause stress where there is none. Many people thrive on pressure and without it they’d simply coast along in life, doing the bare minimum to get by. It’s worn like a badge of honour in many organisations, where it’s commonplace to hear egregious boasting about how little sleep we get and who can do the longest stint in the office over a weekend. But the body’s physical response to pressure is very real – even addictive. Riding the wave of adrenaline feels pretty exciting for a while, but we all have a breaking point and beyond this, the ‘fight or flight’ mechanism we have to protect us from danger stays switched on even when there’s no stimulus.

This is where anxiety comes in. Bedfellow of depression, clinical anxiety is often triggered by excessive stress and for anyone already experiencing mental ill-health, stress can present a rather larger obstacle. There’s still an archaic notion that people are somehow weaker and less capable when they have any sort of mental health history; the less stress it takes to push you ‘over the edge’, the more people see you as not up to the job in hand. Your colleague with the short fuse and the even shorter lunch break might think they’re just doing what’s required to stay on top of it all. But they’re actually setting themselves up for the kind of anxiety that triggers at the most unlikely moments – that if left unchecked can lead to panic attacks and other terrifying and very physical symptoms.

And stress can kill: I know more than one person who pushed themselves so hard they had a heart attack in their early forties. That person may then avoid known triggers and become increasingly isolated and distant, which is bad news for collaborative working and for their visibility and career progression. It’s often hard for someone at the pinnacle of their career to ask for help when they feel overwhelmed, many will suffer in silence and others simply won’t realise it’s happening until it’s too late.

Striking a balance

Our industry is in limbo – it knows that stress is an issue but it doesn’t know what to do about it. If you haven’t already done so, put aside some serious time to strategise.

It’s unrealistic to expect a stress-free life, but there are some very effective ways to mitigate the risks and deal with the fallout, should burnout occur. Whilst you can’t promise things will always run smoothly, you absolutely can and should do your research. Teach your managers to build a dynamic of openness and require that they know what signs to watch out for in their teams. Encourage them to look after their own wellbeing and be mindful of the pressures they put on their teams, and discourage martyrdom in your workforce.

Make it clear that achieving balance is a part of success, rather than a cop out.