EHS Lead at GSK
A New Decade of Unprecedented Change
The last decade (what is it called by the way – the “tens”?) saw a crazy rate of change: uncertainty, big data, the gig economy and relentless disruption encouraging organisations to change faster than ever. And this is only set to accelerate this decade.
One of the least understood risks is the increasing level of pressure experienced by the humans in the system. From the very top to the very bottom, there’s little doubt the nature of work and our workplaces are in transformation – they have been for a while and it looks set to continue.
But amidst all this change, there is a very real risk we will forget about ourselves. Work related stress is insidious in its onset, creeping up on us slowly, as we learn to adjust and re-prioritise all of our activities of daily living, not just our work days. All too often we see self-care drop into the background as other more immediate, apparently urgent, priorities emerge. It’s easy to let go of the things that will return time immediately – time you can now spend on the new, shiny, urgent (sometimes artificial) whatever it is.
So, in order to show up as the best version of yourself in your professional and personal life despite today’s fast-moving, “always-on” way of living, how do you prioritise wellbeing and deal with stress?
And why should we bother? After all, what is aspirational about looking after my mental health? And we’ve all heard that age-old adage “a hard day’s work never killed anyone…right”. Or did it?
Is Stress a Problem?
Well, the Japanese have a term “Karoshi”, which can be translated literally as “overwork death”, which is occupational sudden mortality. The major medical causes of karoshi deaths are heart attack and stroke due to stress and a starvation diet. This phenomenon is also widespread in other parts of Asia.
In Australia, the Australian Psychological Society (APS) ‘National Stress and Wellbeing in Australia Survey’ shows that Australians are faring worse, reporting lower levels of wellbeing and workplace wellbeing and higher levels of stress, depression and anxiety symptoms.
Research shows that this stress can lead to chronic inflammation, hypertension, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and obesity, amongst other illnesses, and that these stress-related illnesses and autoimmune diseases have been on the rise in the whole population for decades.
At an even more basic level, a stress epidemic is occurring from excess cortisol – the fight-or-flight hormone – that characterises being over-stressed for long periods of time. This “stress dysregulation” leads to risky health decisions, like addiction or overeating, and directly to many health problems linked to excess cortisol.
A recent study by the Hamilton Project looked at the “physiological stress load” in the US using biological markers tied to cardiovascular, kidney and liver function to create a stress load index. This physical stress load, a precursor to many diseases, has increased since the late 1970s, and it is getting worse as each new age group enters adulthood.
However, in contrast, there is a school of thought that suggests stressful events are unlikely to damage your health if you tend to get over them rather than ruminate about them.
New findings published in Psychological Science reveal that lingering negative emotions in response to a stressor are associated with a greater number of health problems – including chronic illnesses, functional impairments and difficulties with everyday tasks – a decade later. This means that people’s physical health isn’t simply based on the number or magnitude of stressors they are exposed to, but how negative they feel about them. The thinking is that those who aren’t able to let negative feelings go will either experience greater stress-related symptoms or develop poor health behaviours over time.
Either way, it’s not the stressful event that leads to bad physical outcomes, but the lifespan of the negative feelings that result from it. The event is neutral; it’s our response to it that matters.
Responding to Stress With Self-Care
That brings us to self-care. Self-care is one of the most hyped about aspects to improve our mental wellbeing. But what does it really mean? And how on earth can I fit one more thing in to my already crammed schedule? Please don’t ask me to do something else!
Self-care is important as it gives you the reserve to function. Think of it as the charger to your battery or the fuel in your engine. Life is hardly going to be easy if you’re limping around every day without the energy to move and think clearly. The opposite of self-care is neglect. What would happen if you neglected to service your car? Or neglected to feed your pet?
Fortunately, self-care is quite simple and achievable without taking time out to meditate on a mountainside or spend an entire day in a day spa (yes, that would be lovely, but it’s not essential). Self-care is more of a foundation stone for your wellbeing.
So, what is self-care?
Sleep. Getting adequate sleep, ball park of 6-8 hours, depending on your personal needs. I know, sometimes easier said than done, but I always say: never underestimate the power of a good night’s sleep. This should be a number one priority for everyone. Period.
Eat. Eating regularly and adequately with a decent variety of foods and nutrition.
Drink. Making sure to keep adequately hydrated, all day, every day.
Breathe. Sounds simple, right? I mean, you’ve gotten this far in life without stopping yet…but we’re talking diaphragmatic breathing to help you voluntarily regulate your autonomic nervous system, which can help decrease how much of the stress hormone cortisol is released into your body.
Move. No matter where you’re starting, the more you move, the better your body and mind will function.
So, how do you manage self-care in your busy life?
One step at a time – break your self-care up into bite size chunks and celebrate small successes every day. Establish small habits and routines surrounding your sleep, diet, hydration, breathing and movement, acknowledging what you’re doing well. This will help motivate you for your next habit.
Self-care is highly individual, and something based on a series of small habits that anyone can adopt. So, put your energy where it matters – into you! And the sunrise on a new you in 2020 will be well worth it.