As the global pandemic continues, the effects of being in extended lockdown are widely reported. The fear and anxiety surrounding the disease, decisions regarding the vaccine and balancing the challenges of working from home with the needs of children and home-life are having a considerable impact on everyone’s lives.
This results in a significant strain on mental health and well-being which, in turn, can impact both an individual’s effectiveness in performing their job role and their wider relationships with their colleagues.
Helping staff manage their stress and anxiety
So, what steps can you take as an employer to build the resilience of your team and to help staff manage their stress and anxiety?
Ensure your managers understand what resilience is and how they can help guide and develop their teams to form strategies to cope with the demands of the workplace. Using anonymous surveys to identify the impact of the work environment on your team will allow you to take measures to tackle stressors. Employees value flexibility, so embrace it and consider hybrid working practices wherever possible. You should promote autonomy and let your teams get on with their work without micromanagement, but remember that when individuals are overwhelmed you can help them redistribute tasks if necessary.
Build trust through open and honest communications, and provide a range of support services to include mental health support, coaching or even access to medical care. Reward good work too – this does not have to be financial: a simple thank you goes a long way for them to feel valued and appreciated.
Resilience is a skill which can be developed so include this as part of your wider CPD programme: train staff to recognise that resilience ebbs and flows and it is not simply something you do – or do not – possess
Remember, resilience is a skill which can be developed so include this as part of your wider CPD programme: train staff to recognise that resilience ebbs and flows and it is not simply something you do – or do not – possess.
Understanding and managing your own anxiety
Anxiety is a body and brain problem. Anxiety is the brain reading your bodily state: heart rate, breathing, blood glucose – everything. Everything your body does is in the service of balancing bodily needs to address predicted future needs, whether that is oxygen, glucose, hormones or blood supply. To do this, the body has three responses built into the autonomic nervous system (ANS).
The first, the ventral vagal parasympathetic system, is there to regulate all your bodily systems optimally as part of the so-called “rest and digest” or “feed and breed” mode. This fills you with feel-good chemicals such as dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin so you feel and perform at your optimum: the non-anxious state we should return to at rest.
Of course, at times we need to up the performance, which activates the second mode: the sympathetic nervous system. The so-called “fight, flight, freeze” response pumps out cortisol and adrenaline to enhance action and focus so we can respond to challenges and threats – such as the evolutionary tiger in the bushes – effectively. Once the threat is gone, we should revert back to the parasympathetic pathway to recover and move on.
Too much sympathetic activation for too long (or stress) sends us spiralling into the third mode, the dorsal vagal parasympathetic system of mental and bodily survival, by shutting down the system into depression and burnout.
It is maintaining the balance of the sympathetic and the parasympathetic systems which determines the quality of existence between the stuff we need to get done and living a healthy balanced life
It is maintaining the balance of the sympathetic and the parasympathetic systems which determines the quality of existence between the stuff we need to get done and living a healthy balanced life, as well as keeping you out of psychological lockdown.
Replace the (non-existent) tiger with social media, traffic, politics, COVID-19, money, childcare, climate change, work stress and/or family drama, and you can quickly see why anxiety is the most common mental illness today, affecting nearly 20 percent of the population. Modern-day humans are basically a bunch of freaked-out Neanderthals in fight-or-flight mode, 24/7.
The best way to counteract this is to reduce the number of stressors in your life. But that is not enough. We also need to strengthen our parasympathetic muscle through regular daily practice. Figure 1 shows eight daily practices you can share with your team to help reduce anxiety and improve mood and resilience.
- Sleep – this is non-negotiable as without seven to eight hours of sleep, the body cannot function optimally. We often need eight to nine hours in bed to get this amount of decent sleep
- Nutrition and hydration – drink water and eat less meat, processed foods and sugar as 80 percent of our feel-good serotonin comes from our gut
- Exercise – mild daily exercise improves cardiovascular health, mood and cognitive function. You do not need a gym: try swimming, walking, indoor cycling or online classes
- Hobbies – focus on something which you enjoy, whether that is research, gardening, medieval history, etc
- Time in – spend some reflective time focused on body sensations and not ruminating on thoughts. Try box breathing, meditation apps, tai chi, Pilates, yoga, etc
- Time out – do nothing. Sit and look out the window, walk in a garden, read a novel, talk to the goldfish. Be in the moment and savour the world as it is, it is a beautiful place
- Play time – play a non-competitive sport or board-game, play with the kids, grandchildren, dog or partner. This brings sympathetic activation without the stress response
- Connect with others – one of the best anxiety relievers is doing something with others, even complete strangers. Stay connected to family, friends and the natural world