At a glance
The level of stress in the business community is reaching crisis point, with far-reaching effects on enterprise productivity and the mental health of Australians.
Loss of productivity and worker absence due to workplace stress are costing Australian businesses more than A$10 billion per year, according to the Safe Work Australia report, The Incidence of Accepted Workers’ Compensation Claims for Mental Stress in Australia.
The report says that more professionals make claims for mental stress than any other occupation group, that people aged 45-59 years comprise the group most likely to suffer from stress, and that mental stress claims are more often made by women than men.
Nick Arvanitis, head of research and resource development (workplace) at the mental health not-for-profit agency beyondblue, says that demands on workers have increased in the past 10 years, especially as new communications technology has taken work out of the traditional workplace.
“People are not only working longer hours in the office but are taking work home more often,” he says. “There is a belief that you have to do it to keep up. Tied to that is a common feeling that people feel guilty if they try to switch off. They feel as if they are not pulling their weight.”
Productivity goes down when stress goes up
Arvanitis says there is plenty of research showing that productivity goes down as stress goes up.
“Effective employees are ones that are mentally healthy. Good bosses focus on providing mentally healthy workplaces,” he says.
Angela Lockwood, occupational therapist and author of a new book, Switch Off: How to find calm in a noisy world, acknowledges that employers can do much to reduce employee stress.
Corporate health programs can be useful, although a key point is that the senior executives must set an example. She emphasises, however, that individuals have to make the decision to avoid burnout by “switching off”.
“In the modern world, we can be over connected, overwhelmed and overstimulated,” she says.
How to know when to switch off from work
“The necessary step to switching off, and sometimes the hardest one, is recognising the need to do it.”
Lockwood points to a number of “triggers” that indicate stress is building to dangerous levels. These can include breathing difficulties, sore eyes, broken sleep, impaired memory, irritability and difficulty completing tasks. Ignoring these triggers is likely to eventually lead to severe health problems and burnout.
Lockwood cites the research of Dr Jenny Brockis, an expert on brain health and high performance thinking, and author of the book, Future Brain. Brockis examined the idea of “brain fatigue” caused by over-focus on work tasks and insufficient rest, and found that it leads to poor performance in the short term as well as health problems in the longer term. Equally, high-achievers usually set aside time for mental rest, physical activity, and self-reflection. In other words, they make a point of regularly “switching off”.
Lockwood has developed a diagnostic “life audit table” to help people identify what might be affecting their ability to switch off. It is divided into three sections: over-connected, or a feeling of overdependence on communications technology; overwhelmed, or feeling that there is too much to do in too little time; and overstimulated, or a sense of being bombarded with more sensory information than can be processed.
“Taking the time to take stock of where things may be going awry can unlock important answers,” she says.
“It is important to know when to switch off, and how to flick the switch.”
Research identifies common causes of workplace stress and offers the following advice:
7 guilt-free ways to switch off
- Step back. Give yourself an opportunity to disconnect. Turn off phone notifications and sign out of social media. Be open to asking for help or delegating. Say no to more demands on your time.
- Reduce the tech. Useful as smartphones and email are, the downside is constant connectivity, so work is difficult to leave behind. Make a conscious effort to leave work at the office: don’t check for business messages at home, and find a form of recreation that does not involve a screen.
- Get creative. Keeping a journal, as well as undertaking non-work writing, is a good way to clear the mind. It can help to build imagination and “mindfulness”. Drawing, or even going to an art gallery, can provide a pathway to preventing overload and resetting the brain.
- Take rest breaks. After every 20 minutes of sitting at your workstation, take a short walk away from it. When you finish a long phone call, take four slow, steady breaths. At the end of the day, change out of your work clothes into casual ones.
- Organise time for yourself. This might include taking up a sport, going on a camping trip, spending time with the family, wandering through a plant nursery or a botanical garden – and while doing so do not thinking about anything work-related.
- Take a few deep breaths. At the start and end of each day, and after incidents of stress, take a series of deep breaths. Focus on the depth of each breath, and count the duration of each breath. A good rate of breathing is between 10 and 14 breaths a minute.
- Put aside the guilt. Fighting workplace stress through organised relaxation means moving from quantity of hours to quality of output. Making time for yourself, and caring for your mental and physical health, will lead to greater effectiveness. Breaking routinised patterns of work can lead to improved innovation and productivity.
Start small if you find it hard to relax
While offering a framework of advice, Lockwood notes that each case is different.
“If you find carving out quiet time challenging, try starting small, even if it is only five minutes a day,” she suggests.
“Any activity that helps you calm down and focus on something you enjoy is good. It is a chance to chill out, take control of your life and re-energise.”
Nick Arvanitis agrees. “These days there is less stigma in recognising and addressing stress, and there are avenues for assistance,” he says. “You have to step back and consider what is really important in your life.”