Managing stress in the changing world of work

Picture of Abigail Hirshman

Abigail Hirshman is a Consultant in Mental Health and Wellbeing at Work, and contributor to the University's Wellbeing Programme. 

The changing world of work

It’s been 15 years since I delivered my first stress management training course in HE. My memory is that it was very, well, stressful; departmental line managers wanting to know how to solve stress within their teams and individuals hoping for the silver bullet to help them deal with ever increasing demands.

Looking back on the course I provided then, the advice is still relevant, however it is now set against a significantly different workplace landscape. The hybrid nature of our roles; contemporary cultural developments, ever-changing technology; life under a pandemic and now a cost of living crisis. The question is though: how much of this is within our control to change? 

What is stress?

Stress occurs when we feel out of control and believe we are unable to manage the demands made upon us. It is essentially how our bodies and brains respond to threat. When this happens, we release a mix of hormones providing the energy and focus to respond to the threat and to regulate those systems that are not needed to help fight or flee from the threat. In today’s world, however, we sometimes feel that we are under ‘threat’ all the time and so our bodies are constantly generating those hormones which is where there are risks to our long-term physical or mental health. 

What can we do? 

1. Try not to get into ‘the red’

I sometimes think of it in terms of a bank account. Ideally we should have enough money in our account to cope with unexpected expenditure. Healthy behaviours built up around sleep, exercise, nutrition and social connections are all credits to our account. What happens though in a fast-paced, challenging environment is we tend to live our lives in debit. We stop taking breaks, or work through weekends, reply to emails on annual leave, do less exercise, eat comfort food and drink well over levels we know are healthy. All this means is that when we feel stressed, we are less able to respond in a healthy and rational way. So, one of the first approaches is to address our credits and debits and work out those areas that you can adjust to ensure you are in a better state to manage the stressors when they arise.

2. Check your thinking style

Another approach is to try and adapt the way we think about situations, using a simple CBT approach: the catch it, check it, change it model.

  1. Firstly, catch the feeling, use it as a cue (eg: I feel embarrassed/upset/disappointed by the response I received from my manager/colleague) and then try and focus on the thought behind the feeling (eg: ‘they’ll think I’m no good’, ‘I can’t do anything right’, ‘I’m a failure’)
  2. Secondly, check the thought. Ask yourself: what’s the evidence for this – is it a fact or opinion? What would you say to a friend who said this you? How important will it be in a week/month/year?
  3. And then try and change it to a neutral or positive one (eg: ‘We won’t agree on everything, I’ll know better next time’, ‘I got great feedback for my last piece of work so this doesn’t define me’, ‘I’ll ask for some suggestions on what needs changing’).

Wellbeing for Managers workshop, 16 March 2023

If you are a line manager and want to learn more about stress management for yourself or your team, sign up to the next online Wellbeing for Managers workshop hosted by the Occupational Health Service on Thursday 16 March from 2 - 4pm. Register here.

For more information about the University's Wellbeing Programme, visit: Wellbeing: Thriving at Oxford | Staff Gateway

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Wellbeing for Managers workshop

Thursday 16 March, 2 - 4pm.

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