This guest article has been written by Alison Harris, Wellbeing Coach in association with Petaurum Solutions. Alison is a Certified NLP Master, Coach, Speaker and Nutritionist (and an excellent blog writer!)

What is stress anyway?

The World Health Organisation has now classified stress as ‘the health epidemic of the 21st century’ and stress in the workplace is one of the main reasons given for this.

And it’s something I’m very familiar with. I now know I was chronically stressed for years and it not only affected me mentally but led to a serious physical illness.

As a consequence, I now understand the impact of chronic, long term stress and have discovered that there is so much we can do personally and professionally to identify, manage and reduce it.

The definition of stress is ‘a perceived threat’. In the 21st century, the short burst of stress hormones that are released (acute stress) can be useful in a job interview, doing a presentation or handling an emergency and so helps us to deal with these circumstances effectively.

However, what if the ‘perceived threat’ is being at work? What if it is a manager or employee? A job role or workload? What if, at the end of a working day, it’s hard to switch off from that ‘perceived threat’? The result is chronic stress.

When we continuously release the hormones of stress, every cell’s ability to repair, regenerate and function optimally is impaired. In short, our immune system is down-graded.

This not only affects how we think, feel and behave and therefore how productive we are, we also become physically less able, prone to minor illnesses and, if it continues unchecked, leads to conditions such as stroke, heart disease and cancer.

Work-related stress is not just a mental illness, it affects our health and wellbeing holistically. So, sickness absence due to stress is just the start and therefore has greater financial implications for businesses than it first appears.

One of the most powerful tools we can use to change not only our own response to stress but identify it in others in the workplace is language.

By noticing our internal dialogue, how we speak, by listening to others and building a framework of deliberate language we can create a culture of openness, trust, support and resilience.

Naming not Shaming

The term stress can be vague and over-used. There is now plenty of scientific evidence to confirm that just by naming how we feel specifically, we lessen the intensity of that feeling.

It might mean different things to different people, for example, ‘overwhelmed’, ‘out of control’, ‘disempowered’, ‘scared’, ‘not good enough’, under pressure’ or ‘angry’.

To create a culture of openness, build trust, respect and better relationships for a happier and more productive workplace:

  • Encourage each other to name specific feelings in one to one or group meetings to lessen the impact and provide information about how to deal with it. After all, feeling overwhelmed may be about workload or capability whereas anger may need signposting for support elsewhere. Either way, problems can be solved and solutions found more quickly when we know what they are.
  • Ask questions to help expression of specific feelings, provide time for the answers to be found as they may not come easily and follow up with, ‘and what else?’ to make sure it is explored thoroughly.
  • Don’t be tempted to put forward suggestions of how others might feel. Everyone is different and will respond differently to people, places and situations. Accept what is said without judgement.

Limiting Beliefs

All of our thoughts, feelings and behaviours are driven by unconscious beliefs about ourselves, others and the world around us. Some of these beliefs can be limiting and impact on how we show up at work.

My limiting belief of not being good enough leads to constantly striving for perfection, which was of course achievable, unnecessary, exhausting and stressful.

People with this self-belief often use words and phrases such as ‘got to’, ‘have to’, ‘should do’ and ‘need to’. And in our fast-moving 24/7 culture, these words have become more commonplace, often encouraged, seen as positive and reinforced by some employers in order to meet deadlines, targets and ‘get it done now’.

Look at these words, what message are they sending to the brain? What chemicals are being released when these words are processed? They all mean a sense of urgency, some are even aggressive and so can easily be seen as a ‘perceived threat’.

This may be appropriate in some circumstances but in many, are unnecessary and unhelpful. They also suggest a sense of judgement and are dis-empowering.

I recently moved house and noticed that the communication from solicitors had not just become digitalised since the last move ten years ago, but the language used in emails had changed too.

Instead of letters asking, ‘please complete the following…’ and ‘Could you please send…by…’ I received ‘urgent action’ emails stating ‘you need to complete’ and ‘you need to’ The same requests but very different language, and a ramping up of stress levels. It also felt rude and disrespectful, hardly conducive to a good professional relationship!

  • By challenging or changing these urgent words to ‘Could you’ and ‘could do’ we change the neural pathways in the brain, which allows us a moment of choice, gives us options and when we feel we have options, we gain confidence to make a decision and feeling valued.
  • Feeling valued and confident triggers the release of a different mix of hormones and supresses stress hormones– so it’s impossible to feel stressed at the same time as feeling valued and confident.

Forward Thinking

stress at work

It’s easy to catastrophise when we feel overwhelmed, undervalued, scared and under pressure. Words like ‘always’, ‘never’, ‘everyone’ and ‘no-one’ get thrown around to describe situations in extreme terms. E.g. ‘I’m never going to be able to’, ‘everyone is getting at me’.

To bring a sense of perspective, reality and calmness to catastrophising:

  • Understand that these words and phrases are rarely true, they’ve just become distorted.
  • Being aware of these over-generalisations means that we can challenge and question them, for example, ‘everyone?/who is getting at you?/is there anyone not getting at you?’

When we’re stressed, we focus on what we can’t do, what we don’t want, what we don’t like and so on. We get ‘stuck’ with problems instead of being open to finding solutions.

By consciously changing the focus we interrupt the negative thoughts and language and can move forward positively:

  • Ask what skills and resources each person has, name them and when, where and how they can use them individually and collectively
  • Ask ‘what do you want instead?’ Encourage others to imagine what they want and set realistic goals

By becoming more aware of the language we use, by changing and challenging unhelpful and stress-inducing words and phrases, we can bring a new energy to challenging times, create a positive mindset, culture and environment, encourage motivation and feel a sense of purpose.

And guess what? When we are energised, motivated, positive and have a sense of purpose, it’s impossible to feel stressed – wrong hormones!