Why we need to see stress differently

What does your stress look like?

Delegates at an event I attended last week, had the chance to see exactly how tension and anxiety was affecting their bodies, thanks to a new digital art tool.

Illustration of a man holding lots of paperwork

TV presenter Gabby Logan was wired up to a series of devices, including a heart rate sensor and perspiration monitor, both before and after the presentation she gave at the event.

Algorithms then turned the results into a visualisation, in the form of a ‘stress portrait’ which demonstrated graphically how her body was affected when she was under pressure in the lead-up to the event, and afterwards, when she was more relaxed.  The contrast between angry-looking red and orange pulsating waves beforehand, and more tranquil greens and blues afterwards, was striking.

The concept is part of a wider drive by health service company Cigna to encourage people to ‘see stress differently’ and understand more about how it affects both their body and their mind.  If people are better educated about the effects of stress, and understand more about the interconnectivity between physical and mental health, the experts said, they will be better able to put a plan in place to mitigate the effects.

The campaign comes on the back of a global well-being survey, where 87 per cent of workers admitted to feeling stressed but said they preferred to deal with it ‘privately’ rather than seek professional help.  A quarter said that instead, they indulged in comfort eating to help them cope, with one in seven using alcohol as a crutch.

Managers taking part in the survey actively wanted their employees to be more open about the pressure they were under, with 61 per cent saying they wanted their people to be more transparent about the help they needed to deal with stress, and over half saying they would prefer if their employees told them if they needed to take a day off due to stress, rather than pretending it was for some other, physical ailment.

The findings are particularly pertinent for HR, who to some extent, are the guardians of corporate cultures that often make it difficult for people to admit they are struggling.  Speaking at the launch, Dr Peter Mills said that if employers were putting a lot of demands on their people, they needed to support them by giving them more control over when, where and how they work, although he acknowledged that it can’t all be down to the organisation – individuals have to take responsibility for their own health and well-being too.

But stress is also a big personal issue for HR folk.  In a recent Protectivity research report, HR came out as the most stressed profession, with 79 per cent reporting experiencing daily stress.  Organisational culture was cited as the main culprit, suggesting that HR perhaps doesn’t have as much influence over corporate culture as it could (or should).

Mindfulness coach Samantha Smith, who gave delegates some simple breathing techniques to help install calmness, set out a four-point plan to help delegates take control of their personal stress.

She advised that people find:

A Period of time to unwind.  Literally scheduling a designated time in your diary each day to slow down and relax – even if only for five or ten minutes.

A Location that is stress-reducing.  Whether that’s a physical place (the park, the gym) or a favourite, peaceful place you visualise in your mind when you need to unwind.

An Activity to enjoy.  Find something – whether it’s running, reading or crafting – that you can turn to when you’re feeling the heat.  It’s a very personal choice, and it doesn’t have to be a big thing – just something that is easily accessible, practical and affordable.

A Name of a person to talk to.  Find someone you are comfortable with, who will offer you support and guidance.  If you have a few supportive people in your circle, whether they are colleagues, family or friends, you are much less likely to experience the negative effects of stress.

Very small, simple techniques – that could make a big difference.  Something for HR people to practice themselves, but that they could easily encourage employees to adopt as well.

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