Millions of us around the UK are experiencing high levels of stress and it is damaging our health. Stress is one of the great public health challenges of our time, but it still isn’t being taken as seriously as physical health concerns. Stress is a significant factor in mental health problems including anxiety and depression. It is also linked to physical health problems like heart disease, problems with our immune system, insomnia and digestive problems. Individually we need to understand what is causing us personal stress and learn what steps we can take to reduce it for ourselves and those around us.
Since 1992 April has been designated stress awareness month. There are lots of designated days and weeks through the year. Not many things get a whole month - perhaps that reflects the importance of focussing on stress, as well as the fact that it is not something that is going to be solved in a day or a week.
Awareness around stress ought to involve understanding what it is, why it is an issue and what we as individuals and organisations can be doing about it.
Stress is not an illness in itself - it is a state of mind, when we develop the perception that the demands upon us are exceeding our capacity, when we think more is being asked of us than we can do. It is, however, all too common a state of mind and one that, if allowed to persist, can be a leading cause of anxiety problems, depression and more. It is does not matter whether I am right or wrong - if I think the demands upon me exceed my capacity I will feel stressed. And it is worth keeping in mind that the demands upon us are not neatly pigeon holed into work, our home life, and our other concerns - they all meld into one, and will impact us in all areas of our lives.
Understanding, then, that it is my perception of the demands upon me that matters is critical. We would all do well to remind ourselves on a regular basis that our thoughts are not facts. The fact that I think something does not make it true. We will all have had times when we can see that we have got things out of perspective, when we have thought things were more important, more pressing, more onerous perhaps than they were. This is a direct product of the anxiety that stress can cause and the impact that has on us physiologically. When we become anxious the blood supply to our brain reduces, in order to maximise the supply to our legs and arms to facilitate our flight or fight responses. The result on our brain, therefore, is to reduce our cognitive capacity, meaning it becomes ever easier to lose our perspective - to develop unhelpful thinking patterns which then further fuel the sense of stress.
Helping people understand, and unpack, their stress is therefore critical. There are also lots of practical things we can be doing on an individual basis to help us reduce our stress - exercise, sleep, eating well, talking to people, reducing our alcohol/caffeine/nicotine and more.
But while stress ultimately resides inside the brains of each of us, it is manifestly the case that employers can do much to reduce the apparent pressures upon us that contribute to stress. It is in this regard that we at byrne dean are particularly pleased to have been appointed to help develop the Mindful Business Charter and to promote its adoption by a wider range of businesses. Begun as an initiative between leading banks and their lawyers, the Charter encourages clients and their advisers to collaborate to find ways to work more mindfully with each other. The aim is to promote the health and happiness of all those involved, while, by reducing stress, improving the quality of their cognitive functioning and so the quality of their work and their productivity. The great strength of the initiative lies in the collaboration between organisations, and the obvious benefits that can result resonate far beyond the legal profession.
If you would like to know more about the Charter and how your organisation can get involved then please do get in touch. Raising awareness of stress through a designated month is all well and good, but wouldn't it be so much better if we started taking concrete steps to do something about it too?