Editor’s Note: May is Mental Health Awareness month, throughout the month we will feature insights and best practices to help HR professionals accommodate workers with mental health issues. Today’s focus is on work-related stress and how to cope. Next week we’ll bust some mental health myths, stay tuned!
The challenges your company’s employees are experiencing within the COVID-19 pandemic include a variety of unique stressors associated with life and work. From losing one’s job and potentially a sense of identity to losing employees, working remotely, and deciding whether to stay on a job that poses potential risk of exposure to the coronavirus, Human Resources professionals and the people they serve are all grappling with uncertainty and stress.
The need to develop new coping skills to manage the myriad stressors associated with COVID-19 is more important than ever. Work stress has traditionally been characterized by managing working relationships, concerns about job security, and anxieties about job performance.
Today, the major source of work-related stress is how to navigate all these issues in the context of a pandemic. With physical isolation mandates in place, every business that provides a service has been impacted and the bottom line made less stable. This has included necessary layoffs and furloughs, which can lead to stress manifesting as boredom, loss of routine, unclear productivity expectations, inertia, depression, and anxiety.
Mental health concerns and continued stressors compound each other over time, setting in motion a vicious cycle that offers fewer intervention points for HR executives to intervene with staff who are coping with the loss of organizational structure and routine.
Your employees who have the opportunity to work remotely are facing a unique set of stressors. They may be working in an environment with technology that does not fully support their job demands and may struggle with feeling less productive, which also increases stress. Environmental aspects of on-site work such as collegial support, impromptu social interaction, and physical proximity for more complete communication are difficult to duplicate when working remotely.
So, how does coping with work-related stress change in a time of pandemic and new workplace challenges? The answer is: not that much! Coping with stress of any kind involves an awareness of the stress response and an understanding of how the human body strives to maintain equilibrium.
With this knowledge, HR staff can intervene in the stress response and support the relaxation response. When we have a clear understanding of the physiological stress response and its effects, we can intentionally engage the same physiological system to relieve unhealthy stress and promote relaxation at work.
Knowledge Is Power
At the basic, organismic level, a stressor is considered anything in our experience or perception that requires the body to adapt. Everything from a lack of sleep to worries about paying bills to living in a messy home to questioning our purpose and meaning in life can initiate the stress adaptation response, also called the “fight-or-flight” response or the survival response.
When a perception of threat registers through our senses as atypical, the stress adaptation response is initiated. The brain communicates with our hormonal system and releases hormones like adrenaline and cortisol, which serve as chemical messengers and instruct the body to prepare for fleeing or fighting.
Functions such as digestion, reproduction, higher-level cognitive functioning, and immune functioning that are not essential for survival are suppressed. We are not able to think clearly and focus instead only on threat.
Though this response is automatic, employees can learn and practice strategies to break the cycle, reverse the hormonal messages, and engage the relaxation response. In order to build workplace resilience to stress and maintain wellness, HR professionals can encourage strategies that instruct the nervous system to break the stress cycle and restore equilibrium.
Perspective Is Paramount
The way we interpret events and make sense of our experience relies on perspective. Employees with a sense of control over their environment and who view the world, themselves, and other people in an optimistic way have less stress.
Optimism is associated with better mental and physical health, less distress, better sleep, and even a longer life span! Optimists tend to cope by facing problems rather than avoiding them. Optimism gives us an increased sense of confidence and control and helps us persevere when faced with challenges.
So, how can HR support employees in becoming more optimistic? The overarching goal is to change the thinking that directs pessimism. Imagining good things that will happen in the future, focusing on that for which you are grateful, positive affirmations, practicing gratitude, viewing obligations as opportunities, and viewing failure as growth/learning opportunities can all contribute to cultivating a more optimistic mind-set.
What we focus our attention on becomes our reality. Our thoughts, intentions, and behaviors are based on information we rehearse and the importance we give them through our attention. If employees focus on worry and uncertainty, they are likely to become more worried and anxious. We all need to be mindful of the information we’re allowing into our perception and the emotional tenor with which it’s delivered.
One of the most important changes we can make is to limit the time we spend watching news programs, especially during the current pandemic, as this information causes us to maintain focus on uncertainty and fear.
If employees instead focus on life’s certainties, they can send emotional and biochemical signals to the mind and body that lead to relaxation and increased well-being in mind, body, and spirit. Their reality then becomes one of trust and positive expectations for ourselves, the world, and the future.
There are many things that remain certainties, even now. Encourage the cultivation of noticing the certainties of the sun, the seasons, the natural world, and existing loving relationships. Other enduring certainties we can focus on include music, creativity, imagination, kindness, and hope. Consciously shifting our focus to life’s certainties allows us to engage our relaxation response.
It may feel counterintuitive for the workforce we’re responsible for to remove themselves from the fears and worries they have about work and life. However, we know that stress can be managed very well when we make the conscious choice to engage in optimism, self-compassion, an attitude of gratitude, and creativity. And we always have a choice!
Lynn Jonen, a licensed clinical psychologist, is Clinical Director for the Arizona-based behavioral health treatment center Sierra Tucson. For more information, visit https://www.sierratucson.com.