Dr Lynda Shaw is cognitive neuroscientist and chartered psychologist, a Forbes contributor, an Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Medicine and Professional Speakers Association as well as an entrepreneur and author. Lynda recently highlighted the need for for businesses to stop an epidemic of workplace stress. In this latest interview we gain a further insight into the current research on this issue and the steps that employees and employers can take to address the situation.
Your message to businesses to tackle workplace stress coincided with National Anxiety and Depression Awareness Week. Can you firstly tell us some more about this awareness week?
The business community needs to help prevent a stress and anxiety epidemic in the workplace. This generation of workers is facing more stress than any other because of the constant bombardment of information, over multi-tasking and the need to be available 24 hours a day. We are more stressed than we have ever been, more unable to wind down and in my view more anxious than ever before.
You highlighted research figures from the Health and Safety Executive that in 2011/12 , 428,000 people in the UK reported work-related stress at a level they believed was making them ill. Were you surprised that this figure was quite as high as it was?
I thought it would be higher but people don’t admit to stress because they like to portray an image of resilience and being able to cope with whatever work and life throws at us. We adopt a stance of “must try harder” rather than “I am stressed and this is pushing me over the edge”. In some business sectors it’s simply down to survival of the fittest. Stress is not sign of weakness it is a normal reaction to being overloaded and we need to take heed before it seriously affects our workers health and then the business.
As a nation of workers, do you think our stress levels have steadily increased over a long timescale, or do you think there has been more of an exponential increase in recent years?
There has been an exponential increase because we are juggling more and more because of the constant bombardment of information and over-sharing, the need to be available 24/7 and because competition and expectation are inextricably linked and having less and less restful and mindful time. The flood of information and technology means we can’t switch off. When I was in the mountains in the Tigers Nest monastery in Bhutan even the monks were able to get signal on their mobile phones. You can’t escape technology and nor do we necessarily want to.
Even when we go on our holidays the laptop is open and we think everything will crumble without us checking our emails and doing a bit of work here and there. We also panic because if we don’t keep on top of emails whilst on holiday then we can’t cope with the volume waiting in our inboxes once we get home. Even our valuable respite time is shrinking. Add this to the fact we are also constantly told that we can have it all and to aim for perfection in all areas of our lives and you can see why this epidemic has got out of control.
Technology seems to be playing a fundamental part in today’s stress levels through bombarding us with information around the clock. Do you think the utilisation of technology itself can also work to alleviate workplace stress?
Technology is of course both good and bad. Technology provides us with the information we need in just a few seconds. However we are also addicted to technology and we are feeding our addiction constantly. Having useful apps is wonderful but the key is to find a way to get away from technology and to utilise the ability we all have but don t use – to turn it off and to be mindful to alleviate stress.
Part of the problem also seems to be the inability to successfully wind-down and relax once a stressful situation has passed. What would you recommend as tips to be able to more effectively unwind?
We spend more of our lives at work than at home, thus making it all the more important to enjoy what we do. If you are not enjoying your work then be proactive, speak to your manager and work out what your issues are and how they can be overcome. Don’t allow your work to bring you down – remember we work to live, not the other way round!
Have Technology-no days! On holiday and maybe one day of the weekend – say no to emails and going on the computer. It might take some serious commitment at the start.
Exercise regularly, this helps to keep your body and brain active and also helps to alleviate any stress. Taking a walk around the park and pilates are excellent if you are looking to unwind in a more tranquil environment. Alternatively if you are looking for something more energetic, seek out an exercise class to release some positive endorphins but remember to relax afterwards.
The importance of a clear mind should not be underestimated, bottling up emotions is not healthy and will only lead to unnecessary stress! Whether you find a friend/colleague/family member, make sure you work through any issues you have that feel insurmountable.
You have argued that stress in the workplace reduces productivity and can significantly increase rates of staff turnover. Do you think today’s employers truly yet realise how damaging high stress levels can be to their businesses?
Mostly employers do not realise how damaging high stress levels can be to their businesses. Some do but most don’t. When stressed our brains look for perceived threat and then naturally focus upon it thereby narrowing our perceptions and creativity. When we are not stressed we open up and become more creative, positive and willing and therefore are of more valuable to the company. We know stress leads to all sorts of illnesses and ill people require days off work. We need to enjoy our work and we need to feel good about we do. It’s that simple.
You have pointed out that both employers and employees can both take key steps to combat workplace stress levels. What would you recommend to employers and employees as the most fundamental and easiest of these steps to put into action?
I would love to see businesses have an informal team meeting once a week where people are encouraged to talk about how they are finding things and where they are at and what they need and to not be treated like a whiner or moaner if they say things are getting on top of them.