I was pondering the issue of stress while relaxing in one of the weird and wonderful relaxation spaces in the spa at Centre Parks this Christmas break. I realise that the opening line there will have triggered a few people. “Christmas break” is a phrase you don’t really hear in the veterinary world. My mother-in-law is a retired teacher and for many years she used to ask me “So, how long do you get off at Christmas?” After receiving many years of surly answers from me varying from “one day” to “half a day”, and several Boxing Days leaving the children there while I drove home to be on call, she has finally stopped asking. This year, however, after 15 years in the same job, I finally pulled rank and took the whole period off. Do not worry, dear readers, I will be doing my bit for Christmas 2022, I am sure. So, as I looked at the people around me in the spa trying to relax while off work, I wondered if this really was the best way to do it.
If we managed to fully relax when off work, then when we go back our stress levels will rise. There is no doubt that if you tested my cortisol levels after three hours in a spa and compared it to my levels after three hours at work, even on a good day I would be more stressed at work than in my downtime.
Maybe we should flip it. Maybe we should make our downtime so stressful that when we come back to work, we are, relatively speaking, much more relaxed. So, how can we do this?
Taking it to the extreme, I thought back to my days at Liverpool University and the five years I spent with the potholing club (and as a side order gained a BVSc). We would occasionally have “epics”, and one such occasion involved being more or less lost underground for most of Sunday and the following night. I can’t remember the details of that specific epic, but what I do remember is, on the Tuesday that week, walking out of the Thompson Yates university building, looking up at the blue sky above and just being so happy to be on the surface that any concerns about exams or work melted away. Now, I am not saying that we need to push ourselves to the brink of existential crisis every weekend to get through the week, but there are other ways.
Exercise and adventure certainly run on high levels of similar hormones (cortisol, adrenaline, etc) to what the layman would call “stress”. If we can get those flowing freely outside of work, then maybe our body and mind will cope better with the relatively lower levels experienced at work. Would going for a decent run, an exercise class, fencing, a bike ride, surfing, swimming, etc a few times a week make the workplace a place easier to cope with? If you run a marathon at the weekend, does it make coming to work on Monday a bit more of a step down in stress rather than a step up? I have since replaced potholing with long-distance running, and I can certainly confirm that the week following my last trail ultramarathon was less “… oh hell I can’t cope with the demands of the clients” and more “… I can’t believe I made it through nine hours of running with so little training and survived the hypothermic collapse at the finish line”.
I put this to my usual source of wisdom – my book club – which usefully contains a doctor (GP), NHS psychologist and psychiatric nurse, among others. Between them they know a thing or two about mental health. They broadly agreed with my theory, and one non-medic agreed it certainly affected him that way – a day without some sort of exercise left him feeling “pent up” at work.
The GP usefully provided some evidence in the form of a chief medical officer’s guideline (gov.uk, 2019). The conclusion is that regular exercise is “moderately good” at improving mental health, which the GP considers a massive understatement. However, I would say, in defence of my theory, that I am just considering workplace stress, plus I also think you need to push yourself a bit more than a regular 3km run or a Pilates class twice a week. You need to fairly regularly set off on some sort of adventure or take on something you are not sure you can finish.
Anyway, that’s my theory and it seems to work for a lot of people. So, as a new year’s resolution, try not to relax down in your downtime, but to stress up. During COVID-19 a lot of people around me got into cold water swimming and it remains very popular. The shock of the cold water immersion and exercise helps to recalibrate what your body thinks is stressful. Stress up when not in work, then relax down when you come to work.
Also, remember the context of work in your life: I will let the book club psychologist have the last line… “I’d add just remind yourself of your real priorities. What you are stressed about at work is rarely that high up on this list.”