Janice Haddon looks at how stress creeps up on us almost imperceptibly and how yoga, meditation and other forms of relaxation can be our first line of defence
Work life balance is the thing that we all strive for. So why do so many of us end up feeling stressed and burnt out? Burnout isn’t tracked as an individual health problem, but is included in the statistics on stress and mental health. Stress is one of the biggest causes of ill health – with 9.9 million days lost in in the UK in 2014/15, accounting for a massive 43% of all sickness absence. Mental health costs an estimated £70 billion per annum, and lack of work-life balance is one of the biggest causes of mental health issues. In a recent study by Morgan Redwood, senior managers and executives topped the chart with having the worst work-life balance. Burnout isn’t just stress. It is the end of the road. Chronic fatigue, negativity, irritability, cynicism, anger – a whole host of negative emotions and behaviours abound. Burnout will leave you in a state of complete physical and mental exhaustion. Access to your rational, thinking brain, as you once knew it, will be lost.
The stress load
So how do we end up in such a negative place? The problem is that the human brain is programmed to take us towards pleasurable things and away from difficulties and fears. The fight or flight response produces the adrenaline we need to get us out of adverse situations. Great, when we need to avoid an accident or for short bursts of extra work, but when life’s difficulties or an increasing workload creeps up, it is the brain’s job to relieve the pressure and motivate us to keep doing a bit more in order to take the pressure down. If this continues to ramp up, the energy needed for the brain to function takes priority over other functions of the body such as digestion, cleansing of toxins and rejuvenation. When we are working under pressure, it is our brain’s ability to keep us going in this way that can actually get us into trouble. Doing a bit more each day might seem to be the current solution but, over time, the circuit for ‘doing’ rather than ‘being’ ends up dominating. The ‘unconscious’ part of the brain, that drives the majority of our behaviour, does its job and keeps going. It does this to the extent that time for exercise, relaxation and rejuvenation, can become secondary to getting things off the ‘to-do-list’. After all, why go for a brisk walk or to the gym when that could be time spent clearing down a few emails or finishing a report?
Breaking the chain
This is where we start on the spiral downwards. Without nurture and replenishment, the vessel dealing with the constant pressure is not being topped back up and depletion is inevitable. With the number one function to keep you feeling okay, if the pressure continues without any let up, your brain will search for additional things to invoke pleasure and keep you going. For some of us, this triggers the need to delve into other coping mechanisms. To start with, one coffee, alcoholic drink, cigarette, bar of something laden with sugar, provides the ‘hit’ we need, but over time, more and more is needed to provide the same relief. Then the more toxins we put into our system, the more the essential nutrients, such as vitamin B, that we need for dealing with stress in the first place, get used up in the detoxification process. What we think is providing relief and helping is actually depleting us further – a vicious cycle. Pressure and stress builds up over time. It is this continuous demand that means it can become severe without you being consciously aware of the change. The key to staying out of stress and burnout is to consciously build in time for your wellbeing. Exercise – including yoga and meditation – relaxation, hobbies, family, friends and fresh air are all part of giving you the inner resilience, increased energy and the ability to perform at your best. Work life balance is actually the key to peak performance. Stress is silent in its approach and devastating in its burnout outcome. If you feel you can’t take time out from work due to the pressure you are under, maybe you can’t afford not to?
Janice Haddon is a coach and business advisor with a passion for integrating strong leadership, high performance and wellbeing into the workplace. She is the managing director of Thrive in Life 360 (thriveinlife360.com ) and Morgan Redwood (morganredwood.com).