Blog by Stephany Carolan,
WorkGuru is sponsoring the Workplace Wellbeing and Health Summit, a subject that is very dear to our hearts. I am going to take this opportunity as we approach the summit, to blog about my own experience of increasing resilience and managing stress and how my own health problems have forced me to dust off the theory and start putting it into practice.
I am a work psychologist, executive coach and founder of WorkGuru, an on-line service aimed at increasing workplace resilience and effectiveness and helping people to manage their stress (www.workguru.org). I have been working in this area for about 15 years, but it wasn’t until I was diagnosed with a chronic health condition that put me at high risk of stroke and heart attack and led to me experiencing bouts of fatigue that I really began to understand what resilience was all about.
I got my diagnosis at the same time as I was developing and piloting the material for WorkGuru. Starting a new business whilst experiencing chronic fatigue was a challenge and one that made WorkGuru even more relevant. I had always understood the importance of mental wellbeing, but it was only when it moved from being a ‘nice to do’ thing, to an ‘essential if you want to reach old age’ thing that I really began to apply it to my own life; I think that is true for everyone. We might know some of the theory behind mental wellbeing but until our health compels us to do something about it, we often don’t take the simple, preventative steps that can help us to keep well.
So, I am inviting you to dust off your resilience toolbox and begin to look at the strategies you can use in your life to keep you working effectively and feeling mentally strong. Here are some of the things that I have learnt:
It isn’t about doing less
Managing stress and building resilience isn’t about doing less, it is about doing what you do more effectively. I love my job; I love working hard, being busy and travelling around the country. I didn’t want my health problems to change that, but I did need to make some changes, and, maybe most importantly I needed the people around me to help me make those changes.
Focusing your energy
I was a bit suspicious of fatigue until I experienced it. I thought it was something that could be resolved with a good nights sleep. The shocking discovery was how physical it was. The energy that propelled me out of bed in the morning and hurled me through the day just wasn’t there anymore. Energy, which I had always had in abundance become a precious commodity not to be squandered. We could write a whole blog (check out my blog here) or book on how to focus your energy, but essentially for me it was about learning to align the daily fluctuations in my energy with my daily work tasks, and seeing my week as a whole.
I know that my energy is stronger and more creative in the morning, so I tend to get to my desk early and start my day with creative or complex tasks. I try very hard not check emails, or social networking sites as this more routine task takes away my focus and is better suited for later in the afternoon when my energy is low. In WorkGuru we encourage our members to keep an activity diary, this is partly so they can get a better perspective on the tasks that take their time, and partly so that they can begin to map out how their energy and focus changes during the day so that they can align their work tasks with their energy levels more effectively.
My other learning is to see my week as a whole. Some activities sap my energy more than others. Long drives, long physically demanding days and my frequent hospital visits are all things that I find draining. But, by seeing my week as a whole I can plan to have at least 2 days at my desk, helping me to keep on top of my workload and preserve my energy.
Listen to your body
It was whilst lecturing to post graduate students on mental wellbeing in the workplace that I suddenly had the revelation that my head and my body didn’t always agree. I had been to see my GP the day before (it was when my health problems were first emerging), and she had asked me whether I thought I might be experiencing stress. My response (I tend to get a bit snooty when I am stressed) was to say that stress and resilience was my area of work and I am sure I would have noticed if I was experiencing problems. But then it struck me; my head might be saying “wow this is great, I love all the challenges that we are facing, and the long hours we are keeping”; but my body might be saying “I am knackered”. I have a tendency to listen to my head and not notice what my body is saying.
One of the things that has helped me to learn to listen to my body is Mindfulness Meditation. WorkGuru contains 3 guided Mindfulness meditations one of which is a breath-body meditation that includes a body scan; this involves bringing your awareness to each part of your body and just checking on how it is. Doing this on a regular basis helps you to begin to see connections (maybe noticing how tense your shoulders become after certain meetings, or after long car journeys), and helps you to begin to recognise early warning signs of stress.
Align your head and your heart
Ok, this may sound like a bit of a poncy one, but I am a firm believer that if your work and your life reflect your core values then it is going to be more joyful and less draining. We all have values – they are the things that give our life meaning, a map that guides us through the world. Some of those values are more important to us than others. In WorkGuru we have 2 exercises to help you identify and prioritise your values; these are the ones that we wouldn’t wish to compromise on. Sometimes in life we lose sight of what those values are.
My values are about creativity, honesty, respect, openness, being genuine and really believing in what I am doing. When I work in a way that doesn’t reflect these values then I lose my energy and motivation, I become frustrated and risk feeling burnt out.
Building your self awareness
Underlining all of this is increasing your self-awareness. If I was to be asked “what one thing is necessary to becoming more resilient?” I would say, “increasing your self-awareness”. Knowing your core values, listening to your body, and understanding the fluctuations in your energy levels are all important to gaining that self-knowledge. In WorkGuru we encourage our members to reflect on the balance that they have in their life, to think about where they want to be in the future, to learn about their thinking styles and to to recognise what the early warning signs of stress look like for them. Building that awareness is an essential tool in your resilience toolbox.