11 Things Everyone In HR Should Know About Stress And The Pandemic

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Thinking about stress, resilience and mental health for both you and your organisation in 2021. Here's some essential reading.

The sudden and seismic shift brought by the pandemic is taking its toll at every level of every organisation. Uncertainty has crushed the economy bringing the spectre of redundancy; employees are in stressful situations, and HR professionals are trying to do the best by people in difficult times.

Thankfully, HR is used to supporting people in difficult times, and many organisations have policies, wellbeing programmes and employee assistance packages in place to help.

But COVID-19 has brought the employees' mental, emotional and social health to the front seat.

I am encountering it at all levels of my coaching work, and our organisational clients are telling us they are concerned. Stress, anxiety, and other mental health issues have always been there. Still, the increased impact on people across the board is a new chapter in this ever-changing pandemic story.

For these reasons, if you work in HR at any level, here are ten things I’d like you to know. I think it will help.

1. Why you get stressed.

When you evaluate a situation, you make a quick judgement based on three things:

  1. How it will affect you
  2. How important it is to you
  3. Do you have the capability/resources to overcome the difficulty?

Psychologists call this process, cognitive appraisal.

Suppose the situation is important to you, but you doubt your capability/resources. In that case, that can cause you to feel more stressed. Stress is perceived. It is not a situation that causes stress, rather your interpretation to it that counts.

Realising that it is your interpretation of events rather than the event itself that causes stress is the start of a transformation for many people I’ve coached and trained.

2. Stress can be a good thing.

Stress is a biological response to perceived danger, changing both your mind and your body so you can deal with what is in front of you. Stress can be and is a wake-up call in your body, getting you ready to perform. Interpreted correctly, it supports you to take a task seriously, providing motivation and the focus to work hard. It’s the fight part of the so-called fight or flight response.

3. Or, the stress might be so debilitating that you freeze or run away from the job in hand.

These reactions are ingrained in us by nature and evolution to protect us from short term (usually) physical danger. Prolonged stress can be harmful to our thinking, health and overall wellbeing. Many people are experiencing prolonged stress at the moment. Quietly, under the surface. Behind the scenes.

4. We already know the common causes of stress in the workplace

There is plenty of research out there, it’s not new, and it’s conclusive. The significant factors are:

  1. Heavy workload
  2. Poor management
  3. Poor culture

Although it doesn’t stop there. Work is only one dimension of life. Add to that other pressures in our lives:

  1. Redundancy
  2. Relationships
  3. Conflict within a family
  4. Rising expectations of society
  5. Media and marketing

Wait, did I say media and marketing?

Yes, I did. Marketing teams will talk in terms of targeting a customer’s needs and fulfilling that need. Another way to look at it is that marketing’s task is to create anxiety in you that can only be relieved by making a purchase.

These are just a couple of examples of situations that people can perceive as stressful. However, everyone is different according to their mindset, emotional awareness and experiences.

You might look at the lists above and feel the stress start to creep in just by looking at them. The very thought of it may fill you with dread. For others, what bothers you would not bother them.

5. Mismanaging stress over time can lead to burnout, anxiety, depression, and ill-health

Most of us know that stress and wellbeing are connected. Mismanaging stress in the moment impacts performance. Stress speeds things up or slows them down. It is an accelerator or debilitating. It pushes you forward or backwards, dependent on your interpretation of the event.

With the rights set of skills, emotional and mental resources, stress can be your friend, accelerating you towards your goals and aspirations.

At any given time, you exist in a performance and wellbeing environment. The two are not mutually exclusive. It’s challenging to perform if you are unwell, and it isn’t easy to be well if you are continually performing without rest and recovery. This simple truth makes stress a boardroom agenda item. If it’s not on yours yet, I’d suggest it should be.

6. Circumstantial stress vs Chronic stress

So stress can be motivating or debilitating. I am probably telling you something you already know although getting you to stop and think can make a huge difference.

But stress can also be circumstantial or chronic. Stress often occurs in response to circumstances, and so the stress is short term resolving when the circumstances change. However if:

  • those circumstances continue OR
  • the feelings of stress continue after the circumstances have changed OR
  • you feel stressed at the smallest circumstances;

These are signs of chronic stress. If you stop for a moment and think about it, do you recognise any in yourself? Are you starting to recognise it in the people you support?

7. Stress can be a gentle fizz rather than an overt, explosive reaction.

If I asked you to draw or describe some stressed, you would probably draw someone pulling their hair out or clenched up and tight—a little like the picture opposite.

But stress can be a gentle fizz, ongoing under the surface and never going away. I think of stress like a can of soft drink. On the exterior, everything looks calm but if I agitated and shuck it up, would you want to open the ring pull?

Feeling overwhelmed

8. Stress Management in the workplace tends to focus on mitigating the symptoms rather than addressing the causes

Think of the current wellbeing programmes that your organisation offers.

Are they focusing on providing short term relief from stress, or do they focus on changing the circumstances? Most tend to focus on the temporary relief (and there is nothing wrong with that) but is not removing the causes of stress. They provide comfort from the symptoms, failing to address the underlying issue. The danger of this approach is two-fold.

  1. The cumulative effect over time turns circumstantial stress into chronic stress.
  2. It places the emphasis away from the employer to the employee. It potentially sends a message that you can be stress-free as long as you work hard enough to benefit from the packages on offer.

Are these the outcomes you were hoping for?

9. Not All Knowledge Is The Same

Rather than practising new skills, we tend to build up an ever-increasing database of declarative knowledge rather than procedural knowledge. We know what we need to do but not necessarily how to do it.

Many organisational training programmes give people information and build up declarative knowledge which doesn’t translate into procedural knowledge. These programmes measure success in terms of “happy sheets” with no focus on return on investment. Because in reality, they have only measured declarative improvements and not procedural.

Click here for much more detail on Declarative Knowledge Overload.

10. Mental Health First Aid And The Stress Container

I’m a big fan of anything that supports people, and I’m a mental health advocate, so when I say what I am about to say next, please bear that in mind.

Mental health first aid is just that. Designed to help people when they need it and help smash the stigma of poor mental health. It is why the “stress container” metaphor used in mental health first aid emphasises finding relief from circumstantial stress. If you have not come across the stress bucket model before here is a quick summary.

  1. Imagine you have a container you carry around with you that gradually fills up as you experience stress.
  2. If you are experiencing high amounts of stress, the container will fill quickly.
  3. The size of the container varies from person to person and can change daily.
  4. As stress fills our container if we do not do anything to relieve that stress the container overflows.
  5. The stress container has a tap at its base. The tap represents ways to relieve stress to stop the container from overflowing. Finding ways to relieve stress is essential.
Stress Container - Mental Health First Aid

Again, this approach supports an approach that looks for immediate relief of circumstantial stress. Rightly so, as it is first aid. Chronic stress is dealt with by professional support. Assuming it is available without a long waiting list.

11. Broad well-meaning advice is precisely that.

Stress, wellbeing and performance are at the fore due to a worldwide pandemic and many people working from home. Resilience is the buzzword and “thought leadership” on the subject seems to be abundant on placed like Linkedin, management communities and HR communities.

Let me attempt to sum up:

Don’t

  • Think of stress as a crisis
  • Overthink
  • Dwell on things

Do

  • Embrace stress, see it as your friend
  • Be motivated and inspired with my inspirational story of how I overcame adversity
  • Take comfort and inspiration in some of these famous quotes
  • Follow these simple productivity hacks
  • Remind yourself it is ok not to be ok
  • Reframe the issue
  • Learn relaxation techniques
  • Meditate
  • Yoga
  • Play games or take a course
  • Practice gratitude
  • Eat well
  • Sleep well
  • Hydrate
  • Get exercise
  • Meet people

Can you spot the overarching picture? They all either focus on circumstantial stress or do not tell you how. They assume you have the know-how.

But when were you taught to reframe your thoughts?

When were you shown how to avoid overthinking?

When were you shown the many ways we dis-engage, how to spot them and address them.

You get the picture. Most of the information out there focuses on what you should be doing but doesn’t tell you how.

You see if there is one thing I'd like you to know it is this.

If people do not have the essential skills of resilience, then they only really have four strategies when it comes to stress:

  1. Put up (and become sick)
  2. Shut up (and become ill, dis-engaged)
  3. Give up (leave)
  4. Step up (and change)

Where would you say your people at? Do they have the skills they need to step up? In my experience of training and coaching thousands of people from all walks of life, I would say no. And from our work where we measure that impact, it is clear that this gap is impacting both performance and wellbeing.

The question to ask is not “am I not resilient?” The question is, “do we have the skills we need to be resilient and create the conditions where we people thrive?”

If you do not have those skills, expect people to pursue strategies 1-3 as stepping up is not an option. Let me remind you of strategies 1-3:

  1. Put up (and become sick)
  2. Shut up (and become sick, dis-engaged)
  3. Give up (leave)

I’ll leave you with a few question to consider:

  • Do you see circumstantial stress or chronic stress developing in others?
  • Are your wellbeing programmes providing relief from the symptoms of stress in the workplace or giving people the skills to tackle the root cause?
  • Do you see circumstantial stress or chronic stress in yourself?
  • What are you doing to build your resilience?

If you or the people you help are concerned with performance and wellbeing, please write to me. Let’s swap more insights on the HR challenges and what measures we can take to overcome them. Together.

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