I was having a conversation with a senior Army officer about stress and burnout the other day. At the extreme end is PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). He, in company with a number of his colleagues, has experienced it and sometimes gets recurrences, especially when he's under a lot of pressure.
The initial onset is usually from extended living or working in dangerous environments but once the condition has developed, triggers can bring on an occurrence. For instance, a back-firing vehicle can be reminiscent of gunfire.
On the other hand, the more common forms of stress and burnout we see in our society are a potential for all of us; we don't need to be in battle zones to suffer.
• A Southern Cross Health Society survey late last year found that six in ten New Zealanders feel stressed at least once a week, with this reducing to four in ten among those aged 50 plus.
• The survey also reveals that financial and work related issues stress out younger Kiwis, while their older counterparts are more likely to be stressed by health/potential health issues.
• And apparently females are more likely to be stressed for more than half the working week.
We all intellectually know that stress is something to try and avoid, yet when we're caught in the spiral of it, changing our state seems near impossible.
So, what can we do about it, apart from feeling depressed at what is apparently an increasing trend?
(The findings reported were consistent with the Southern Cross 2015 'Wellness in the Workplace' survey which reported that 28.6% of businesses believed employee stress levels were on the rise.)
I've suffered burn-out more than once in earlier years and have worked with a number of clients struggling with the same issue. Is it triggered by stress? Some experts say it's the end result of too much stress. For myself, in most instances my own behaviours were the root cause, due to not recognising when to slow down, stop or rest.
Even when we feel there's nothing we can do, honest introspection will almost always deliver some action we can take to begin the change back to health and a feeling of wellbeing. Do we need to change jobs? Is there someone else we can get to assist us? What can we do about health challenges?
The tips following are not designed for very extreme cases, but might be helpful if you're dealing with lower-grade stress or burnout.
Six tips I've learnt the hard way:
1. Listen to and observe your body - it tries to alert you.
We all have a weak spot. For some it will be a sore back, or shoulders, or an old injury that starts to ache. For me it was an internal sense of shakiness - not visible to the casual onlooker. Some (mainly women) will burst into tears at inappropriate times. Others will get angry.
2. Slow down.
For as long as necessary, cut back on as much as you can. For most, the easiest way to decide this is to make a written list of the tasks on hand - trying to do it in your head is too confusing. There will almost always be something you can defer, delegate or just stop doing. It may be necessary to talk to other stake-holders, but honesty is the best policy.
You'll only end up disappointing them if you keep battling on, for you're guaranteed to become less and less effective if you don't change something.
3. Clarity and commonsense are typical casualties of stress and burnout.
You might have to ask someone else to help you if you can't see the wood for the trees. Or you might give a family member or colleague permission to call you on marker-post behaviours. For instance, a family member used to strongly encourage me to stop when I started working extra-long hours.
4. Tidy up your environment.
An overload of paper, information or clutter is stressful. In my experience, the fastest stress-reducer in town is to sort out your office (and/or any other environment you work or live in.) If you can't do it alone, find a neat-freak friend to work with you. You have to do the work though, for it's your stuff and you need to make the decisions.
5. Take regular power naps.
I've often written about this as have many others. It's the fastest way to claw back energy and productivity, counter-intuitive as it sounds.
6. About every six to eight weeks have a 'Do Nothing weekend' (or a few more days if possible) away from any stress-creating situation.
Don't do anything looking remotely like work. Ideally switch off your phone. Give your brain and body a chance to defrag (to use a computer term) from your day-to-day cares. Get into nature, do exercise, sleep, relax, read - whatever your favourite method of chilling out might be. Don't rush around socialising or fill your time with deadlines and obligations. Do Nothing! You'll be amazed how refreshed you feel at the end of the days off.
Good luck with these simple commonsense methods. And if you've got any other good favourites I'd love to hear from you - just email me at firstname.lastname@example.org