WPA Webinar: Stressed about stress

04 July 2022

The Health and Safety Executive has estimated more than 800,000 workers suffered from work-related stress and anxiety in 2020-21, fuelled by the experience of living and working through the Covid-19 pandemic, with its lockdowns, furlough and isolated home working.

While we may now be 'living with' Covid-19, the mental health fallout from the past two years remains challenging.

Workers from accountants to head teachers to HR professionals and beyond are all complaining of post-pandemic burnout, with as many as 71% of UK workers saying they feel stressed. The cost-of-living crisis could lead to further problems, with the Royal College of Psychiatrists warning of a knock-on mental health crisis "of pandemic proportions".

It was against this worrying backdrop that WPA in July held a timely and informative webinar to help employers and managers better understand 'the basics' of stress: how to recognise and manage it in yourself, and how to support colleagues and teams. Led by chartered health psychologist and chair of the Vocational Rehabilitation Society, Dr Julie Denning, the webinar highlighted that:

  • Many workers are suffering from post-pandemic anxiety, stress and burnout, and the cost-of-living crisis could yet make things worse.
  • To manage stress effectively, you need to understand the physical and mental signs and symptoms, both in yourself and others.
  • Modelling and signposting are important, as is recognising when to refer someone onto more specialised help and support.

Dr Denning emphasised that better mental health support could save UK businesses a massive £8bn a year. According to the charity Mind, as many as a fifth of employees have admitted to calling in sick because of stress; nearly half (42%) have considered resigning because of it; and nearly a third (30%) have felt unable to speak openly to their manager. Just as worrying, more than half of employers (56%) don't feel they have the right training or guidance to help.

Webinar: Stressed about stress

Chartered Health Psychologist Dr Julie Denning discusses how employers can better understand 'the basics' of stress and how best to support colleagues and teams.

Understanding stress in yourself

To manage stress, we must first understand it, its triggers and drivers, Dr Denning explained. Stress has physical effects, mostly to do with the body responding to a sense of 'threat' or danger.

"You breathe more quickly and shallowly because you are trying to get more oxygen into your blood system. Your heart starts beating faster to get that lovely rich oxygenated blood around to the big muscle groups in our body - tops of our arms and legs - which gives us the opportunity to fight the situation or head for the hills," said Dr Denning.

A good technique to manage this, then, is slowing your rate of breathing. "If we want to calm down and soothe ourselves and basically turn down the 'volume' of the fight or flight response, tune into your breathing," she recommended.

Aim for five to six breaths a minute. Breathe in for five, hold, and then breathe out for five. Breathe through your nose rather than your mouth and make sure the 'out' breath is longer than the 'in'. This will all send messages to your brain that you can deal with the situation.

Another useful technique is 'noticing'. This is stepping back mentally to gauge or 'notice' your emotions, to learn to recognise the warning signs that you may be beginning to become stressed or anxious. An 'emotions wheel', as shown below can be helpful here.

"Use the emotions wheel to pick and tease out what other emotions we are experiencing, emotions that can help to explain why you are feeling the way you're feeling. Once you understand that, it can help you to problem-solve and deal with things," advised Dr Denning.

Break down and rationalise all the 'noise' in your head, whether we're talking future-gazing anxieties ('what if xxx goes wrong?') or retrospective ('why did I do xxx?') or self-criticism ('I'm going to be useless at this').

Tell-tale signs of stress can be poor concentration, tiredness or getting things wrong, being late for meetings, missing targets, having a short temper and being socially withdrawn. Constant coughs, colds, or frequent short-term absence are other common red flags. "Notice all that in yourself as well as look out for it in other people" said Dr Denning.

How to support teams or colleagues

What, then, can you do as a manager and leader? The second half of the webinar examined techniques and approaches for supporting colleagues and teams.

Team check-ins are a good starting point, including considering where colleagues might be on a stress 'temperature' gauge.

As well as thinking what you can do individually - opening conversations, signposting to support and so on - think organisationally or in terms of the whole team.

Why, for example, are people working through lunch without a break? Is it because work flow demands need to be rethought or simply that, organisationally, no one has built lunch breaks into the schedule? If people are withdrawn, what can you be doing to make your workplace more sociable?

"Role modelling, too, is very powerful. If you're doing it, others will be given the 'permission' to do it too, and that is what is really, really important," Dr Denning recommended.

Know your boundaries

Alongside this, however, it is important to recognise that you are not a mental health professional.

"You're not there to be a psychotherapist or clinician. And you are not there 24/7 either. If you say to someone, 'call me anytime', expect a 3am call. But it might be an EAP is available 24/7," advised Dr Denning.

It is also vital as a manager to know who or what resources you can signpost people to. "So, things like your wellbeing hub, your wellbeing action plan, your EAP [or] your PMI. And think about external resources and charitable support - Mind, Mates in Mind, the NHS of course.

"If you send someone off for signposting, come back and review. Check it was helpful. Don't forget, managing stress takes practise," Dr Denning highlighted, as the main presentation came to an end.

In the question-and-answer session that followed, Dr Denning was asked how to avoid feeling guilty for carving out 'me time'.

"The first thing is recognising where the guilt's coming from, and then parking it. You need to look after yourself to look after other people. It is about thinking what is the impact of you not taking that time out? How it might impact on your productivity, your stress levels, your emotional wellbeing, your needs," she advised.

How can you tell the difference between 'healthy' stress – a bit of pressure, challenge or an adrenalin rush in your working day – and when you are slipping into 'bad' or unhealthy stress, she was asked.

"It is knowing for yourself when you're feeling like you're on the brink of something, although you really want to notice it before you get to that point. It is about practising using the techniques we've talked about, getting to know yourself and how you're feeling, emotionally and physically. And then just watching out for where your triggers are," Dr Denning said.

The slides of the event can be found here.

About Julie Denning and the author

Julie Denning is a Chartered Health Psychologist and CBT therapist. She has been providing vocational rehabilitation to people with long term conditions for a decade within Working To Wellbeing (W2W) and has been supporting line managers and their team's health and wellbeing through W2W's line manager assistance programme.

Nic Paton is one of the country's foremost journalists on workplace health, safety and wellbeing, and is editor of Occupational Health & Wellbeing magazine. He also regularly writes on the health and employee benefits and health insurance markets.