January is seen as such a dreary month in so many ways; the return to work after a long Xmas break, bleak and cold Winter days and Summer holidays seem a long way off! One way many people try and boost their morale is by starting New Year Resolutions. Indeed, it's been estimated that 20 % of the US population do these annually. However, most are started with no real conviction and fall away before the end of January! So let's break up this groundhog day of half-heartedly starting new year's resolutions and instead, I'm going to suggest making 5 changes that will have a huge impact on your well being and health.
1 Let Go Of Things You Cannot Control
A lot of our stress and emotional turmoil arises from trying to deal with and affect situations that we simply have no control over. These are commonly caused by external events or other peoples' actions and behaviours. A common example which happens to all of us is getting stuck in traffic - that can be a source of great frustration leading to raised blood pressure and anxiety - we have put pressure on ourselves to be at our destination at a certain time usually because we have an appointment/meeting.
However, if we think logically, there is absolutely nothing we can do about the traffic - it is an event totally out of our control. Instead of getting stressed and anxious, it is worth remembering that. Instead, focus your efforts on doing something constructive about the situation; if you have a meeting, call the person up and explain what is happening - much better to inform them earlier rather than at the last minute. Much of the time, our stress is caused by the perceptions of the situation being much worse than the actual facts show. Instead, we should pause and take a step back; this can take the emotion out of the situation and help us to think more logically about what is happening.
The danger from not correctly and quickly identifying events that are beyond our control are twofold: It sets off negative thinking behaviours labelled rumination or catastrophisation - both lead to increased stress and anxiety. We ruminate when we go over and over an event in our minds even when we have no ability to change its outcome. It serves no constructive purpose and most of the time we do not realise we are doing it. Catastrophising is thinking the worst outcome and results will arise from the event - when there is no logic or evidence for doing so. Eg, using our example of being stuck in traffic for a work meeting - " I will be sacked for being late", " I will lose the respect of the client", " I will be penalised for being late" ... even if there is virtually no probability of those events happening catastrophising involves thinking the worst-case scenarios will arise from such events.
Accept the situation and accept there is nothing you can do to alter it
Stop all negative thinking such as rumination or catastrophisation
Do something positive/constructive instead
Turn the seemingly negative situation into an opportunity to do something
2 Say NO to unreasonable work requests from colleagues
Probably the biggest stressor at work is the behaviour of colleague(s) at work either in their demands or general behaviour in the workplace. Even though mental health has been in the public eye much more and its importance seemingly recognised by firms as well as employment law; unacceptable and unreasonable behaviours are still commonplace in many organisations. I hear many such stories, even in organisations that purport to take the mental well being of their employees seriously. This is a huge topic deserving of a separate blog piece, but in this article, I am going to focus on unreasonable work requests.
It's not always easy to say NO to work requests, particularly if:
You are relatively new in the company and you are keen to show your enthusiasm and make a positive impression with your senior colleagues
The culture of the company is that of always helping others, so you feel obliged to always say yes to work requests
You feel intimidated/ pressured to say yes
You have difficulty saying no because you are too selfless, valuing other people's needs above yours.
Seemingly innocuous requests from senior colleagues to their junior colleagues, asking if they are able to do work or tasks in addition to what they have already been assigned, can cause anxiety and stress to the person being asked. Typically in hierarchical organisations, the future prospects of employees are, to various degrees determined by more senior colleagues; therefore there is added pressure upon junior colleagues to "tow" the line and do as they have been told - so even seemingly innocent requests such as " do you think you could also do x, if you have time?" is nuanced and laced with a suggestion - far too subtle to be labelled as a threat but the junior employee will feel obliged and under pressure to undertake that additional work to obtain a satisfactory rating or to ensure that his/her behaviour is seen as one of keenness and willing rather that of being difficult and uncooperative. So how should you deal with such situations?
First of all, you need to decide if the request is unreasonable. Some clues to help you decide include:
Do you have the right skills and training to do the work?
Do you have the time to do the work - i.e. can you do the extra tasks in your normal working day?
Is the request a one-off or is it a regular occurrence?
Will you be penalised if you say no?
Say No to all unreasonable work requests - if possible, send an email to the colleague requesting your help as a follow-up. The purpose of the email is to explain more clearly or to reinforce why you are unable to do the additional tasks. The email will also serve to act as an important piece of evidence should the need arise.
Where possible, always keep a record/diary of all unreasonable requests from other work colleagues, always with a clear date and time of the event. From personal experience, such evidence is extremely powerful and effective; helping to provide a full and accurate record of events. It also prevents the "you said this, I said this scenario" which often happens after time has elapsed.
The clear strategy should always be honest and truthful; in the long run that will serve you best and will be best for your health and well being and help you avoid burn out. If you do not have any time to do the additional work, then say so - saying no is difficult but, by saying yes, there is a danger that you could be perceived as always being available and the goto person when something needs to be done - ie the term commonly used is being dumped upon! What is the worst that could happen? Most of the negative thoughts are worst-case scenarios and catastrophising - which v rarely happen.
In most companies, there is now 360 feedback, enabling the junior members of a team to give feedback on their more senior peers after an assignment. This is one important way to ensure less influence is given to more senior team members. However, it is clear that not all companies have such a scheme and that some of those schemes are not very effective.
3 Change the chatter inside your head
The tendency for most of us is to have a lot of negative chatter inside our heads for a lot of the day:
e.g. "you're not going to succeed, you don't deserve to be happy, you always make a mess of things, it's going to be bad, I'm not going to like this.."
This voice tends to get louder when we're in a difficult situation or are feeling anxious or stressed. The problem is that those thoughts or voices only seem to be presenting the facts - but we forget they are just thoughts and NOT facts. Reading any of those comments - not one of them is based on facts, only judgements but all negative. But studies show that what we think is a better predictor of our happiness than what is actually happening to us.
Therefore, we should be aware of the importance of those internal conversations and use thoughts to change our views of what is happening to us in a positive fashion only. This is so important that I'll discuss this topic as a separate blog in the near future. However, there are some simple steps you can take to reduce the negative chatter, and therefore reduce your stress levels;
Adopt a distance or zoom out of situations - addressing yourself as "you" and using your name rather than using I. By adopting a bystander view of events, you are able to significantly reduce emotional feelings, and so better improve your ability to deal with upsetting or adverse situations.
Journalling - writing about your experiences and feelings is an effective method to dial down the negativity residing in your body
Imagine you are advising a friend - what advice would you give your friend if he/she asked for advice on the situation you are facing? This is an effective method of providing a broader and more logical perspective on matters.
Everyone has different strategies for dealing with such situations, some work better than others, experiment and see which methods work best for you. There are a number of other ways to help tone down the negative chatter and I will talk about these in later blogs.
4 Find ways to nourish yourself
The continual grind can take a toll on your health; therefore spend time daily just on you, ensuring you give yourself time to get away from the incessant pressures of everyday life - work, commitments and personal responsibilities. Even a few minutes a day can refresh yourself, provide greater energy and change your outlook to a much more positive one.
Without a respite, those pressures can lead to exhaustion - mental and physical. Very often, we don't pay much attention to the warning signs but it is crucial you do before you suffer the consequences, as I have found out to my extreme cost, with multiple heart attacks whilst working for a management consulting firm.
It doesn't need to take much time but simple habits such as going for a 30-minute walk outside, listening to some music or 5-10 minutes of closing your eyes and deep breathing can make a huge difference to you. Avoiding burnout is a real challenge and I have learned a lot of lessons during my 25-year consulting career. I will share more of my lessons in future blogs.
5 Reach out to your forgotten or lapsed friendships
Having a good social network with friends has been proven to improve your resilience. However, many of us are poor at maintaining our friendships by making time to see them or even just calling them. We tend to prioritise work or we just fail to make the effort to keep in touch. Yet friends can make a huge impact on our well being; lift our spirits and make us smile.
Let's do a simple experiment to prove this. Close your eyes and remember an occasion when you spent time with friends - observe how you feel? Are you smiling, do you feel more relaxed, did you feel a glow? Whatever emotions or sensations you felt, I'm pretty certain they were positive! So, a challenge for you in January 2022 is to reach out to your friends both current and old - and make more time to see them. Call one friend today! Making plans to see friends gives you something to look forward to and that in itself is an important mechanism for maintaining good mental health. Having something to look forward to helps us deal with painful and stressful times.
The 5 changes I have discussed are all important ones to improve your resilience and therefore your health. I've kept it brief but will talk about some of these topics in more detail in forthcoming blogs. If you have any questions on this blog or want to know more, I'd be delighted to hear from you, please email me at info@XtraClarity.com