If the start to the second decade of the 21st century is anything to go by, we are living in a dynamic, challenging and evolving environment. In the current pandemic-hit world, with growing concerns over health and safety, uncertainty over finances and job security, as well as social isolation through the distancing and ‘life from home’ protocol, we see an increase in instances of stress and overwhelm. Burnout, stress and anxiety are now serious issues that plague both the workplace and our lives at large.
We see a number of our clients oscillate week on week from feeling overstimulated, anxious to then moving into the zone of slack. In a world where we are constantly plugged in, being told to stop, stay home and positive, amidst a looming crisis, can lead to feelings beyond our immediate control. For a number of us, managing life and work, while continuing to look forward, may seem difficult to achieve in the current situation.
There has been much discussion about burnout after the World Health Organization (WHO) in its amendment to the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11), categorised burnout resultant of chronic workplace stress as an occupational phenomenon. The report characterised burnout by three dimensions that include “feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance from one’s job, or negative feelings related to one’s job; and, reduced professional efficacy”.
In Corporate India, even in the pre-COVID era burnout, stress and anxiety have been on the rise. 2019 saw a three-fold increase in anxiety-related disorders and a doubling of stress related complaints. Ninety five per cent of Indian millennials and 89 per cent of Indians are estimated to be stressed, according to surveys. While one off instances of overwhelm is manageable in our daily lives across economic cycles, it’s when feelings of stress and anxiety are constant is where it becomes concerning.
The prevalence of stress leads to the production of a hormone called cortisol, commonly known as our flight or fight response. While cortisol in small doses gives us that burst of motivation to drive us forward, the presence of cortisol in our bloodstream over time can have serious ramifications. Chronic stress which results in high cortisol levels can impair brain functioning, suppress the immune system and cause more long-term damage. It inhibits the release of other hormones such as oxytocin making us less empathetic, less trusting, more self-centred, and perceiving the world around us as a constant threat. As we work in ‘cortisol driven’ environments or live in a world full of constant alarm, where sentiments then become unhealthy and unbalanced, we tend to adapt to our surroundings.
With the high pace of disruption that we see in the world currently and the constant stream of negativity and fear all round, it almost begs the question of are we then living in a high cortisol world?
As a leadership and performance coach, I can see an increase in feelings of anxiety, stress, burn out and a general overwhelm in leaders and organizations that I work with. These feelings tend to overpower any sense of accomplishment, reward, appreciation, motivation and productivity. It makes individuals feel like their efforts to date are reasonably pointless. A number of executives that we work with have reported feeling disconnected, disengaged, overworked, underappreciated or over exposed to high stress environments.
By limiting the angst, adopting a positive perspective, developing long-term goals, focusing on what’s controllable, individuals and teams can reduce the overwhelm in our VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world.
Here are some tips to deal with feelings burnout or overwhelm:
1. Prioritisation: To quote David Allen the famous time management guru, “You have to give time to make time”. It is important to take a step back every now and then to assess where we want to go and list key goals that we would like to work towards. Without a sense of where we are going or what we are trying to accomplish, everything then becomes high stress, important and urgent! It’s also important to revisit these goals to see if they still hold given the fast-evolving landscape that we live in.
2. Know Yourself: Each one of us has our own triggers for stress and overwhelm. Through exercises that make us self-aware we can discover our strengths, beliefs, values, motivations, and fears. This will enable us to identify behavior patterns, our reactive response and our thoughts to help us self-manage better. Building resilience is after all a key 21st century skill!
3. Cut the Interference: There is a tendency to delay tasks that we find tedious or uncomfortable or a tendency to shirk away from dealing with situations that are deemed difficult or an inability to carve out that time for ourselves to focus during work from home. The build-up of all this can have an impact on our own self-motivation and can serve to increase overwhelm. Managing procrastination and finding our work from home zone is almost as important as managing our time!
4. Enjoy Yourself and Appreciate: Sometimes when we are too focused on managing a bad economic cycle, finding a solution to our liquidity crisis, or trying to keep our business running in this environment, we forget to just take a moment to appreciate all that we have. The outcome supersedes the process of accomplishment and we tend to not prioritise things that bring us happiness, joy and fulfillment. Remember to take a moment each day to value all that you have achieved, the people around you and remind yourself to do things that you think of as fun too!
5. Build Meaningful Relationships: A supporting ecosystem is our biggest strength in times of distress and difficulty. We often get so goal focused or caught in our own web of negativity at times that we forget to invest in one of the most important aspects of our lives: our relationships. So, take that hour and go grab a Zoom coffee with a friend or colleague and say a word of appreciation to someone closest to you. These relationships are, after all, what will hold you in good stead when the chips are down.
6. Be Positive and Accept: It’s important to recognise that life is a series of ups and downs. Accepting that nothing as we know it is constant, and less so in a VUCA world, can help focus on what is within our realm of control. Understanding that emotions and uncertainty are a part of the daily grind, will only enable us to hone our intellect such that we remain positive even in challenging times. From Vedanta to Yoga to Cognitive Behaviour Science, they all suggest that we can self-manage our thoughts, emotions and behaviour in any situation. Remember, nothing lasts forever, not even the bad times!
It is equally essential for organisations, leaders and teams to recognise signs of high stress in their colleagues to provide them with the requisite support before it gets to a point of burnout. Building a culture of encouragement, openness, empathy, trust and collaboration, will only serve to positively impact productivity, performance and retention, thereby contributing to both individual and organisational success.