The nursery rhyme is, of course, actually about the 5th of November - gunpowder, treason and plot and all that; Guy Fawkes failing to bring the country to a standstill by blowing up Parliament. The traditional celebrations of his failure, that bring a light and some warmth to suddenly much darker and colder Autumnal evenings will, like so many other of our customary markers of time, fall victim this year to Covid. And the 5th will actually be the start of Lockdown 2 across England, bringing the country to something of a standstill in a different way.
So the 4th feels important. It also happens to be National Stress Awareness Day. There are, perhaps, too many of these national days to make much of a fuss about all of them but maybe this is one worth reflecting on given all that is going on.
This second lockdown has a different feel to the first. Back in March the days were lengthening and getting hotter, birds were hatching and there was a vague curiosity and expeditionary feel to our march into lockdown - not unlike the crowds queueing to volunteer and march off to the front as World War 1 started - "grinning as if it were all an August Bank Holiday lark" as Philip Larkin memorably put it. This time feels more serious. We know what is coming and it is no lark, and with it the days are shortening and darkening and we are all getting a little bit scared, and tired and stressed.
To be very clear, and to state what I hope is the "bleeding obvious", stress is bad for us. We do not benefit from a bit of stress. Any amount of stress is harmful. Persistent stress can be fatal in any number of ways. Pressure is good, we need a bit of that to get us going. Stress is another thing entirely and it impacts our cognitive functioning and is a major cause of mental illness - it is not good.
The best explanation of stress I have ever come across is that it is the state of mind we get into when we think we cannot cope, when we think that we are not up to what we are facing, that the demands upon us exceed our resources. The simplicity of that definition masks any number of levels of complexity, all of which warrant some awareness at this time, and which are inevitably too numerous for a blog to do justice to. I will try to draw out a few.
First there is the balance of the demands and our resources. To feel stressed it does not actually matter what the reality is, it is what I think that counts - if I think the demands exceed my resources then I will feel stressed. But for many of us right now there may be a very genuine sense that things are getting the better of us, that it really is getting harder day by day to manage, to cope, to get through. For many people there has been no let up in the demands of work, and perhaps even an increase. At the same time we are tired, run down by all that we have had to deal with this year, and all the rest and recuperation we have not managed to get - our resources are depleted.
We need to take a regular honest look at the balance of the demands and our resources and, if, with that honest awareness, they look out of kilter, scale back the demands or bring in additional resource. For some time now we may have absorbed those excess demands by working harder, pushing ourselves that bit more. Be aware that that cannot go on forever and, in the end, something has to give. It would be better if it was the demands we place upon ourselves, rather than our own selves.
Be aware also, though, that our isolated remote working these last many months may have resulted in our losing sight of the other resources we can call upon - with our colleagues not around us we may have got out of the habit of asking for help when we need it, and spreading the demands more evenly. If we are responsible for a team this also means we should make sure we know the respective workloads of those in our team and have an effective system for work allocation. We need also to be ready for conversations with our team about the demands they are facing and the resources they have available, and to be willing to push back on demands when necessary to ensure there are sufficient resources to meet them.
Remote working risks stress in many other ways too though. Sometimes we feel stressed because we have lost a bit of perspective, a bit of objectivity, so that we start exaggerating the demands (there are more of them, they are more time critical, they will take longer, they are more important than is actually the case). Isolation from our work colleagues is often not good for objectivity or perspective. Not having colleagues around to check in or touch base with risks leaving us in an isolated spiral of worry of our own creation.
We may also have lost the ability to step away from, or outside of, our stressed work bubble, or, conversely, our stressed home bubble, because we never physically leave either for very long. We are constantly immersed in them both - we are not getting that hour commute for thoughts and worries to settle, or the snatched moments when we stare, apparently vacantly, out of the office window when in fact something nagging at us from home has just gently shifted into place. We are not getting the distance from things that can give us perspective which means we risk losing it. And when we have lost our own perspective, the best thing is generally to borrow someone else's, to talk to a colleague - but we may not feel there is a colleague there. Again we need to ensure we are connecting with our colleagues and, if we are a manager, we must prioritise connecting in a meaningful way with our team, if only that they may borrow our perspective when they need.
It would clearly be remiss of me not, in the context of a piece on stress, to mention the Mindful Business Charter which provides the permission and the framework to be more aware of the causes of unnecessary stress in the ways in which we work with each other and to talk about them so that they may be removed, creating healthier and more effective ways of working. The Charter truly makes awareness of stress something for every day. In the context of the earlier definition of stress, it is about removing unnecessary demands so that there is a better chance of the resources we have at our disposal being sufficient to meet them.
Demands and resources and perspectives about either do not exist in a vacuum. If my work environment is tailored to my needs then I will be able to accomplish more - my resources will be increased. If, however, my day is filled with back to back zoom calls with no let up in between, if I am required to be instantly messageable so that I can never truly concentrate on one task during the working day, if I am not allowed the space and time and peace to meet the challenging demands upon me, then those demands will exceed my resources, and the only answer may be to forego the working day and only turn to the tasks that need my focus and attention after hours, when the noise has subsided.
Finally, as we are thinking about awareness of stress, if you are a leader, now is a good time to ask your people how they are and how that balance of demands and resources looks to them (because that perception is ultimately what will determine whether they are stressed or not). Use the occasion of a national day of stress awareness to make yourself a little more aware of the stress that may be being experienced in your organisation. And if you need help taking a more strategic approach to gathering insight and addressing stress and wellbeing in your organisation, talk to us.
Information on how we help organisations with a workplace wellbeing strategy can be found here.