Updated: Jan 22
Last week I had the privilege of being interviewed by @charitynikki on the @pizzaforlosers podcast. We were talking about the incidence of workplace stress – a serious theme emerging from my #CharityWell research. And more importantly, I shared some ideas on how Fundraisers and others charity professionals can identify, minimise and cope with too much stress. The following is intended as an expansion of some of the topics we touched on. (If you've not yet listened, you can do so here)
Stress is not all bad! Stress is simply the way our bodies respond to changes which create new and challenging demands.
There are different kinds of stress, good as well as bad. And, we all need some stress in our lives, in order to keep us interested and motivated
Not enough stress and we’re bored, lethargic and have little motivation – we’re in the Calm zone. Too much stress and we hit exhaustion, burnout, and we enter Distress – the negative stress zone. But in the Eustress zone – positive stress - we are engaged, aroused, energised and at our most productive.
How great the level of stress is to push us into the next bracket will vary from person to person and even then, I’m sure you’ve thought to yourself at least once, “what’s wrong with me? I can normally cope with WAY more than this!”
There are different types of stressors (the cause of the stress), some positive (a new job, new relationship, new house, new baby, taking a holiday etc) and some negative (bereavement, breakdown of a relationship, illness or injury, money worries, job insecurity etc). But, even too much stress from positive stressors can push is into the distress zone
Recognising the signs of stress
Stress can have effects on your body, your mood and on your behaviour. Too much stress can see you suffering from headache, muscle tension or pain, chest pain, fatigue, and sleep problems. Stress may also lead to anxiety, restlessness, lack of motivation or focus, overwhelm, Irritability or anger, and sadness or depression. You, or others, may also notice you displaying some of the following behaviours: overeating or undereating, angry outbursts, drug or alcohol misuse, tobacco use, social withdrawal, less frequent exercise
How do you know if you’re under too much stress?
For as long as I can remember, I’ve always included “works well under stress” on any CV I’ve created. But, having experienced and managed to rein myself back from significant distress, I would no longer include it. I do work well under stress. But the amount of stress that tips me over the edge is now far less than it used to be. I can spot the warning signs: I start to become far more forgetful than usual – I literally cannot remember the thought I just had seconds ago, and I completely lose the power of speech. I can be in the middle of a sentence and the word I want to use is clearly front of mind, and yet there is some blocker in the way which is preventing the movement of the word from my brain to my mouth.
But this self-awareness is only something I’ve learnt to develop. And it took me recovering from a significant illness, and having to accept that I wasn’t going to spring straight back into being the ‘old’ me again to develop this awareness.
I then know that if I don't either remove myself from the stress or do something to reduce the stress I am coping with, the forgetfulness and the word blocks get worse. Unchecked and then I start to not be able to sleep, and I struggle to concentrate – exactly the worst things that can happen when you've got too much on in the first place!
The Five Stages of Stress
Fight or Flight
The body’s Alarm System – increased activity in the adrenal and thyroid glands.
Fight – mental focus increases, initially but not for long
Flight – increase in stress hormones, heart rate, blood pressure; decrease in short-term memory; feelings of fear, anxiety and /or depression
Body knows its stressed so it does everything it can do keep everything ‘normal’ while everything is actually working overtime. Anti-inflammatory hormones are produced which control inflammation. This really is the last chance saloon. Ignore these symptoms and you are going to be in trouble
Acknowledge you’re dealing with a marathon, not a sprint. Pace yourself, take a step back and regain some control. Your body acknowledges the ‘stopping’ and starts to recover itself. To support this recovery, you need to rest, sleep well, eat well and reduce overall output.
If you don’t listen to your body and you don’t commit to the recovery phase, you’re basically telling your body that this level of stress is not going to go away. The body starts to acknowledge that this is the new ‘normal’ level of stress and so adapts to this new ‘normal’. This is not a good adaptation. This then takes resource away from other areas: energy levels will reduce, productivity nose-dives, and so too does your self-esteem. Then your sleep starts to suffer, you may start to over or under eat, and become far less likely to manage your emotions. You don’t recognise this new you and so the spiral downwards continues
Burnout is where you end up if you ignore the signs of the first four stages. Where the earlier stages of stress are characterised by increased and hyper activity, these latter stages and burnout are characterised by helplessness and disengagement.
The symptoms of burnout are mainly mental and emotional. That heightened activity and productivity has completely disappeared. Sufferers have loss of motivation, ideals and hope and become disengaged. Burnout is serious and can lead to significant depression and even hospitalisation
So, what can you do to help alleviate the symptoms of stress:
1) Prioritise sleep – look at the diagram above! There comes a point when you are less productive with more stress. Reduce the stress and increase your productivity. Between 7 and 8 hours of sleep every night is (on average) the optimum amount of sleep we should be having
2) Drink lots of water - Prolonged dehydration can lead to problems with thinking and reasoning, it is good for your skin, it delivers oxygen throughout the body
3) Schedule weekly time with family & friends – don't just think you can fit them in around everything else – you won’t! Plan them in like you would your work
4) Move (don't just sit) – any level of exercise, even just a 10-minute daily walk can help alleviate some of the symptoms of stress, Exercise increases the production of endorphins in the brain. Endorphins are the brain’s feel-good neurotransmitters. Exercise also helps you to relax, can lower the symptoms of anxiety and depression, and can improve sleep
5) Make time for hobbies – using a different part of your brain than the part you use to work is a really great way of alleviating stress. Some activities such as squash, horse-riding, skiing etc have an unavoidable change of focus – you simply cannot take part in these hobbies successfully without concentrating 100% on the ball / remaining in the saddle / remaining upright, or you will soon become hurt/on the ground
6) Rest – simply taking your mind off work, taking that day of TOIL you’re owed, finishing on time, taking half a day’s holiday, can be a great stress reliever. Ironically, it is also not uncommon for the solution to some of your biggest challenges or blockages to come to you while you’re in this state of rest (double whammy!)
7) Laugh – there is a saying “laughter is the best medicine”, but there is scientific evidence to suggest this is true. Laughing strengthens your immune system, boosts mood, diminishes pain, and protects you from the damaging effects of stress
What can we do to recognise and reduce the causes of stress?
Acknowledge that the stress you’re under is getting too great. Admitting this to yourself is the hardest part of the process but helps you turn the tide.
Identify what the thing is that is causing you the undue stress. Often, while only one project / process / person / thing is the cause of distress, the effects are felt across your life at work, at home and everywhere in between. While you may feel at your worst at the end of the day, the thing causing the stress may be something that happens early on.
You’ve acknowledged that you’re spinning too many plates. In order to retain control of the situation, you need to methodically and in a controlled manner, take in all of the plates one by one, put them in a pile and then work out a plan of how to cope with them. The falling of the plates is inevitable. How they fall is up to you. If you don’t act at this point, they will spin out of control and crash
You also need to decide whether the change that is necessary is within your control. What needs to change in order to reduce or remove the stress and how can you make this happen? If it’s a process (or lack of process) what can you put in place to systemise it and whose help will you need? If it’s volume of work, who can help you reprioritise, streamline the list or take some off you? If it's a person, are you able to confront them about it and if not, who else can you go to for help? (confronting difficult people / bosses who are the cause of your stress is a topic for a whole other blog, coming in March)
Rinse but DO NOT repeat
Make sure your plan does not simply ramp the same stress back up. Find someone to help and share the load. Work to your strengths and area of genius and delegate other parts to those with the relevant strengths and genius. Decide what really matters (and put the rest aside). Plan the milestones, don’t plough straight on towards the end goals without acknowledging and celebrating the successes along the way
Identify and recognise those symptoms that start to become prevalent when your stress levels are rising and make sure you are aware of them and look out for them. Start to know your own self.
Practise saying ‘No’
As fundraisers and charity professionals, we struggle to say ‘no’ to people. We want to do everything we can to play our part in making the lives of our beneficiaries or future of our cause and changing the world. But saying ‘no’, or at least ‘not yet’ to the things you know you are going to struggle to deal with or deliver on time, you start to learn your capacity and limitations and you start to rebuild your self-confidence and productivity.
Your You resource is finite
Many of us don’t just want to stop at being awesome fundraisers or charity professionals, we want to believe we are, and actually be Superhuman. However, while this is not ever going to be the case, there are also things that as individuals we simply are never going to be able change. We need to make sure we use our time and our talents on the right issues.
There is a famous prayer, the Serenity Prayer (quoted in the title of this blog) which regardless of your religion or not, has an essential sentiment within it which strikes a chord with the desire to change the world felt by most in the charity sector
“grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference”
Acceptance of things we cannot change is a biggy! Accepting we cannot change them is huge enough. Then accepting the thing itself is one step further. But sometimes, that process of acceptance is a stress reliever in itself.
The acceptance exercise mentioned in the podcast is a simple but effective one. Identify the one thing you know really gets on your goat, the thing that you can feel stress and annoyance bubbling up inside you just at the very thought of. That thing you know you absolutely bloomin’ hate, but you cannot change. When I think of close colleagues I’ve worked with, I can tell you what their “thing” is.
Take a piece of paper and write down everything you hate about it. Really go to town. Tell it exactly what you think about it. (Doing this in your own handwriting works far better than typing. There is some science about it somewhere. One day I’ll remember to find it!)
Once you’ve written it all down, fold the paper in half and take one last look at it. And either out loud, if you’re alone, or in your head, if you’re in company, say its name and tell it that it is no longer worthy of any of your brain space. And then shred it, or better still, if you can find an outdoor space (preferably a BBQ) and it is safe for you to do so, burn it
And then never let that thing/person/item/process/piece of work ever bother you again
Helping fundraisers and charity professionals with their challenges, their career development, their mindset, management & leadership, and their wellbeing, is what I do.
If you’d like to know more about how we could work together, book a Coffee Call with me and lets chat! Everything we discuss is entirely confidential and there is no obligation beyond the call. But maybe, together we could work through how to cope with and remove a particular blockage or stressor, how to decide which of the spinning plates to put down, or how to improve something else.
Click on the link beneath the photo of me gazing longingly at my coffee and book a time for us to chat