The 2015/2016 statistics from the UK Health and Safety Executive are in and show there were 488,000 cases of stress last year and 11.7 million working days lost. Stress remains an epidemic in the business world, hitting bottom lines hard and affecting both happiness and career progression. In this article, I question how we can approach stress more mindfully, consciously and optimistically.
Let’s start with a little experiment.
Without thinking about it, what are the first things that come to mind when you consider the word stress?
Do you see visions of newspaper headlines?
Stress is on the rise!
New study warns workplace stress is killing you!
Stress increases the risk of heart disease!
Or does your mind go to your current stressors?
That deadline just got moved to tomorrow – how am I going to get it all done?
You need me to do that evening presentation, now I’ll miss Flynn’s recital!
My review is coming up and my boss has it in for me.
Certainly, the majority of messages we receive on stress, and the spontaneous thoughts that arise when we consider it, are negative, fearful, compassionless, and anxiety-inducing.
So let’s see if there is a more conscious and mindful formulation, a way to approach stress with a little more balance, ingenuity and clarity.
Firstly, we need to define stress and whilst there are countless definitions available, my favourite is that of Stanford health psychologist Kelly McGonigal who says “Stress is what arises when something you care about is at stake”.
This is a beautiful reframing of the usual idea that stress is the unhealthy physical or mental pressure felt in the mind or body when we have to do things, or put up with things, that are hard or we don’t like.
If stress only arises when something we care about is at stake, it immediately challenges the notion that the aim of stress-management is to reduce or eliminate stress. Because of course, if we were to succeed at this, we would also have to eliminate from our lives everything that we care about. It follows that the real opposite of stress is not relaxation but apathy. Think about it. Do you really want a stress-free life?
Whilst clarifying our definitions let’s also think about all the negative things in life that we lump collectively under the label of stress.
Try this exercise. Divide a piece of paper into four quadrants and label them with the headings below. Now populate the quadrants with everything in your life that you consider to be stressful.
Eg. death of a loved one, end of a relationship, major illness etc.
Stressors of Daily Living
Eg. minor illness, work deadline, low level relationship discord etc.
Activities of Daily Living
Eg. laundry, washing up, cooking, paying bills etc.
Eg. poor service at a restaurant, a rude receptionist, a blister on your heel.