A few months ago, Amber, a senior HR manager in her mid-forties, felt like she was at breaking point. “I’ve read wellbeing books, I listen to all the podcasts, I’ve been working with an executive coach for months now, and still I constantly feel overwhelmed,” she admitted. Frustrated, she wondered, “What am I doing wrong?”
Since the office reopened, her team had been focused on navigating the company’s shift to hybrid work. The process, still ongoing, seems to bring up more questions than answers. “It’s such a moving target, and the politics I have to navigate as a senior leader is beyond draining.”
Amber is not alone. Professionals across all industries are frustrated and exhausted now. As economic and corporate pressures mount, there is little to give. What concerned Amber was what felt like a shift in her state of being. “I always used to be able to leave work at work. I’d do a yoga class or meet friends for a drink, and let things go at the end of the day. Now, I can’t remember what it’s like not to feel constantly overwhelmed and stressed.”
It’s a question we heard from Amber, which echoes the sentiments of many professionals right now: How do I stay true to myself, achieve my career goals, and maintain healthy boundaries at work? There is no straightforward answer.
Stress is inevitable in most professions. Recently, and most notably through the pandemic, we have witnessed a significant increase in levels of chronic (low-level and relentless) workplace stress.
Chronic stress is not the rush of a deadline, with leeway to rest and restore afterwards. It’s constant, nagging, and ultimately debilitating. The World Health Organization recognized this debilitating impact when, in 2019, it defined chronic workplace stress as being the cause of burnout.
The Impact of Chronic Stress
Stress triggers a physiological response in our body: our sympathetic nervous system is engaged, and we shift into ‘fight, flight, freeze, or fawn’ mode. This is healthy. It’s part of our survival mechanism. However, when we are subject to chronic stress, we become stuck in this reactive, high alert mode. What was designed to help us survive wears down our systems. Our immune system is weakened. Our concentration is compromised. We become short-tempered and exhausted. Eventually, we lack the objectivity we need to make healthy decisions for ourselves and others. For HR professionals a big part of our jobs is the ability to deeply listen to others, lean in with empathy and come up with solutions that helps to support ‘people centric’ challenges. This is made almost impossible to do effectively when our own health, wellbeing, and sense of self are compromised by chronic stress.
How to Avoid Stress Becoming Chronic
A healthy career is a long game. So, it’s essential that we build in periods of rest and recuperation, to ensure that periods of stress are regularly interrupted by rest and restoration. Right now, most organizations are not structured to support this kind of healthy balance. So while the long-term solutions to chronic stress are systemic, as individuals we can’t afford to wait. We need to be fiercely vigilant to prioritize our health and wellbeing, starting now, before chronic stress wears us down to a point where we no longer have the energy to make these choices. Working with people like Amber, we developed a few key strategies to help you ensure stress does not become chronic.
"A healthy career is a long game; it’s essential that we build in periods of rest and recuperation, to ensure that periods of stress are regularly interrupted by rest and restoration"
1. Identify and Adopt Healthy Habits.
Its advice we often give others, but are you taking care of yourself as a top priority? Identify a couple of healthy habits and behaviors you can adopt and commit to in your daily life right now. They don’t have to be big – in fact, starting small is best when we’re under stress.
2. Block Time in Your Calendar for Self-Care.
Frankly, self-care is infinitely more important to building a sustainable career than showing up at every Zoom meeting. That’s why it deserves to be a priority in your calendar. Fix a time at the end of each week to spend 15 minutes blocking self-care into your calendar for next week (ideally, have events that simply repeat weekly in your calendar to save yourself leg work). Yoga, meditation, a long walk, a nap, simply resting or another activity that nourishes you which does not involve a screen. Whatever self-care looks like to you: prioritize it by scheduling time for it now.
3. Be Gentle with Yourself When You Get Derailed.
Eating takeout three nights in a row? Working through lunch after you’d promised yourself not to? The pressures of leadership cause all of us to do things we swore we wouldn’t. The key thing here is awareness and being mindful of your inner critic. Notice that this behavior isn’t serving you, forgive yourself, then get back on track. If you’re struggling to embed consistent healthy behaviors, have a friend or a coach hold you accountable.
The Ripple Effect
Naturally, stress in the workplace is not going away. No matter where we work and what our career goals are, workplace stress is often systemic to the point of being normalized. That makes confronting it head even more powerful: identifying stress and prioritizing your own health and wellbeing will have a ripple effect.
As a leader, when you role model these behaviors this sends a message to your team and even further afield. When you set and keep boundaries, prioritize your mental, emotional, and physical health, and stay on track despite the occasional setback, you empower those around you to do the same.
Amber has put these tips into practice for a few months now. She was surprised by the feedback she got from not only her team, but a board member with whom she works closely. “Hearing from other people that they notice the positive change in me, just from more actively, prioritizing my health and wellbeing, has been super motivating.”