Wellbeing and resilience: putting on your oxygen-mask first

Sylvie Thrush Marsh, Head of Platinum Services
By Sylvie Thrush Marsh, Head of Platinum Services

When you’re running and managing a business, busy with the day-to-day, it can be easy to forget that taking care of your own wellbeing and mental health should be a top priority.

Stress can have a serious effect on your health and ability to function, so you need to learn to recognise and support your own wellbeing needs. Because you can’t be at your best, make consistently good decisions, and just as importantly, lead your team and provide the support they need, if you’re under a weight of pressure or struggling with poor mental or physical health.

In this blog post, we take a look at the damaging effects of chronic stress, the key differences between tough and toxic work environments, and we cover some key steps and coping strategies to support your own wellbeing.

In part 2, we look at ways to build resilience in your people and how to make your workplace healthier for all your team members.

What is wellbeing?

We define wellbeing in the working context as the ability to handle the daily stresses of the job, to work productively, interact positively with other people, and realise our own potential.

It is more than just coping or surviving each day. It’s more than the absence of mental illness and it’s more than feeling okay or happy.

Wellbeing is supported by good physical and mental health, and the way they interact.

Common risks to wellbeing

There are many risks to wellbeing, both at work and outside it. Research has found that things like harassment, discrimination, bullying, isolation, loneliness, and difficult relationships can have a serious effect on our mental wellbeing, while accidents, injuries, illness, genetics, or a sedentary lifestyle can impact our physical wellbeing. Other things such as unreasonable workloads, trauma, unforeseen events (the COVID-19 pandemic!), sleep deprivation, or substance abuse can harm both our mental and physical health. So, in our modern working and personal lives, there are a lot of things to watch out for.

Stress

Stress is our body’s natural response to challenges and changes. Many different situations or life events can cause stress. It’s important to remember that we all find different things stressful, we all have different stress thresholds, and we all respond slightly differently.

When we encounter stress, our body produces physical and mental responses to help us adjust to new situations, e.g. stress hormones that trigger a fight or flight response and activate our immune system. This stress response can be useful: it keeps us alert and can help us push through fear or pain so we can run a marathon or deliver a speech, for example.

However, we are not designed to withstand too much or continual stress. This means we can end up in a permanent stage of fight or flight, which leaves us overwhelmed or unable to cope. Long term, chronic stress can affect our physical health (elevated blood pressure, heart disease, a weakened immune system, ulcers) and our mental health (anxiety, irritability, panic attacks, depression).

Mental health issues

Mental health issues and illness are, unfortunately, increasingly common in our Western societies and we all need to be aware of their prevalence.

In Australia, 1 in 5 people experience a common mental health disorder in any 12-month period, 1 in 4 Australians will experience an anxiety condition in their lifetime, and 1 in 7 will experience depression in their lifetime. 

If there is some good news, support-seeking appears to be growing at a rapid rate, with around half of all people with a condition now getting treatment.

If you or someone you know needs help, Beyond Blue is a good place to start.

Building your own resilience

Resilience is a word that gets bandied about a lot. Being resilient in the face of challenges and stress is what we see as optimal, so you can take things on in an effective and positive way. Resilience isn’t about ignoring the effects of prolonged stress or mental or physical distress, or taking a ‘cement pill’ and toughing it out. It’s also being realistic about what you can handle and achieve.  

Tough vs toxic

There is a clear difference between tough and toxic situations and working environments. What is tough can make you stronger and build resilience. What is toxic is unhealthy and will make you weaker and less resilient. Working on a demanding project or overcoming a fear of public speaking can be rewarding and build your confidence, but you can’t “self-care” your way out of an unsustainable workload, bullying, harassment, poverty, an abusive relationship, depression, or alcoholism. When you’re suffering from these conditions, you need to seek professional help.

Handling pressure

Step 1: Recognise

When you find yourself in a tough situation and feel you’re getting stressed, take a step back and try to recognise what is causing the stress. It’s important to learn how you respond to stress  and what your limits are, i.e. the level beyond which you start making poor decisions. If you’re not clear about these things, asking a loved one or trusted person at work can help you understand your own behaviours so you can then start to set boundaries so you go beyond your limits.

It’s also important to assess the situation to see if it’s acute or chronic. Something acute might be a one-off hassle or impediment, like a delivery of materials being delayed or an employee’s sudden resignation, whereas something chronic is an issue or situation that regularly causes you distress, like dealing with an overwhelming workload or an abusive colleague. You can probably handle acute situations with a bit of extra effort or assistance, but a chronic situation will need more attention (and possibly professional help) to navigate a solution. 

Step 2: Respond

It’s best to respond to a stressful situation or event when you are calm rather than flustered, so you can engage in an analytical way. First up, triage the situation to understand what’s going on so you can then look at what needs to change or what support you might need from colleagues, family or friends. If you feel overwhelmed, are you able to pause and share some of your responsibilities or take time off? If the situation is toxic or unsustainable, can you exit or end it? Sometimes, walking away is the best option for your own wellbeing.

Developing physical and mental resilience

Research has shown that resilience is ordinary, not extraordinary, and there are a lot of things that you can do to build resilience, both physical and mental. Getting regular exercise, ensuring you are hydrated and eating and sleeping well will help your ability to deal with stress. Making sure your working practices are safe, e.g. taking regular breaks, having the right equipment and work station, will also help minimise stress.

Mental resilience is harder to define but it involves behaviors, thoughts, and actions that anyone can learn and develop. Research supports 5 key techniques for building mental resilience:  

  1. Change the narrative - what are you telling yourself and can you come at it from another angle?
  2. Face your fears - practice makes perfect, so embrace uncomfortable situations. 
  3. Seek help - you’re not alone and there are always people who can help.
  4. Talking - bottling it up won’t help, so whether it’s to a friend or a professional, talk things through.
  5. Take a break - if it’s going for a quick walk or taking a holiday, we all need to relax and recharge to be effective.

Try doing 1 thing differently

Building positive habits is the key to effective, sustainable change, but rather than making a long list of things you want to change and then finding you can’t keep it up, try just changing one thing in your regular routine every month.

Here are some suggestions:

Physical health

  • Take 1,000 more steps per day than you normally do.
  • Eat 1 more serving of fruit or vegetables per day, or take a multivitamin.
  • Limit yourself to 2 beers (or other alcoholic drinks) each drinking session.
  • Set an alarm on your phone so that you stand up every hour and stretch for 30 seconds.
  • Set an alarm to get to bed 30 minutes earlier than usual.

Mental health

  • Meditate twice a week (sign up for a meditation app, if that helps).
  • Have some 1-on-1 time with a loved one, each week.
  • Each night, write down 3 things you’re grateful for.
  • Volunteer at a cause that’s important to you.
  • Reach out and seek professional help.

For more useful suggestions, have a look at Atomic Habits by James Clear.