What causes stress at work and how can coaching help?

In early April the CIPD, along with Simplyhealth, released a new report which showed that work related stress in the UK is on the rise, resulting in increased absences. In fact, on 28th April, ‘World Day for Safety and Health at Work’ (who knew?!), statistics showed that absence due to ‘stress, anxiety and depression increased by nearly a quarter in a single year.’

The biggest contributor to this? Heavy workloads. And the cause? Poor management. Sorry folks - you lot again.

Yet I suspect you don’t have the smallest of workloads either! But don’t despair, the finger of blame points higher up, to senior leaders, and is due to the lack of adequate training given to their managers (‘only 50% have undergone training to support their staff to better manage stress.’)

If you happen to be a manager in this situation, what can you do to tackle stress? One of the quickest and most effective solutions is to talk to your people. Really? Simply by having a chat? Yes. But not one where you pretend to listen, potentially zone-out and disregard what the other person says. The key is to chat using coaching techniques.

Coaching (I’m pleased to say) has become commonplace in the working environment today but still isn’t used to its full potential. Coaching provides a space for individuals to talk through a project, situation or concern without fear of being judged or interrupted. When done effectively, it can enable an individual to describe how s/he feels and then objectively focus on the here and now. Then, consider what can be done from a more rational perspective and enable people to move forward. Coaching is always supportive and future-focused.

Isn’t coaching a lengthy process though?

It doesn’t have to be. Coaching can be a quick conversation at the end of a meeting or a catch-up by the water cooler. At Laughology we call this type of coaching ‘Little Chats Little Chats’ with the idea that if you regularly have little chats, the big chats - especially the more challenging ones - will become fewer.

How then can you have an effective little chat? Here are a few tips!

Rapport is key – you need to know each of your direct reports well in order for them to feel comfortable and confident to approach you with their concerns.

Be available – if they want to chat, say yes. Little chats don’t need to be scheduled in, they can happen anytime, anywhere and, if for any reason you really can’t talk at that moment, you make them your first priority as soon as you are available.

Focus on the future and possibility – the goal of coaching is movement. The chat should result in your employee becoming unstuck. This requires you to ask open questions, offer continued support, demonstrate your belief in their abilities and above all, listen to them. Don’t assume you know what’s going on for them – you don’t – their perception of the world is different to yours so remove that judgement. The key to listening is being present, open, making eye contact and using curiosity.

Humour helps too – if suitable, encourage a chuckle, as laughter will help them relax and think more clearly. Big tip for humour though – if in doubt, don’t use it.

What if you’re the one experiencing the stress? How can you manage your stress at work?

Talk about it. Even if you don’t think your manager can help, find someone who can. Of the many, many articles, studies and blogs on stress, the main piece of advice that features in all is to seek help and support. Chat to someone.

There are many benefits to this advice, some aren’t what you might expect…

One of my favourite TED Talks is Kelly McGonigal’s ‘How to make stress your friend. According to Kelly it’s the belief that stress is bad for us that makes it so and also how we respond to the stress as we experience it.

As many of you may be aware, our stress (or fight or flight) response releases adrenaline to prime our body for action by increasing our heart rate and respiration. It also releases cortisol to increase glucose levels to provide your muscles with the energy they need to run from or destroy the perceived threat.

This is effective short term, particularly if someone or something is genuinely trying to kill you, but not if that perceived threat is frequent or sustained. The negative impacts of these two hormones are that they shut down other bodily functions, such as digestion and the immune system. So if that stress is on-going, as the statistics demonstrate, it can affect your wellbeing.

What you may not be aware of, and what Kelly McGonigal also refers to in her talk, is that there is another neuro-hormone which is released during the stress response – Oxytocin – otherwise known as the ‘cuddle hormone’. My favourite one (for several reasons) as it plays as important a part in the stress response as adrenaline and cortisol.

How exactly does Oxytocin help? Firstly, it encourages you to seek help from others. It’s the brain’s way of motivating you to get support; to seek human contact. When you do that you get a greater release of it and it makes you feel good.

Next it helps your blood vessels to stay relaxed when stressed and is a natural anti-inflammatory, so it plays a big part in maintaining your cardiovascular system. Like adrenalin and cortisol, oxytocin it is released by the pituitary gland but the heart has receptors for it as well. That means that oxytocin can then help heart cells to regenerate and heal from any damage stress might cause. Brilliant!

What’s more, oxytocin isn’t only released when you seek help, but when you offer it to others as well. As Kelly puts it: ‘When you choose to connect with others under stress, you create resilience.’ It can also be contagious. If others observe kindness in their working environment they are more likely to be kind themselves. By visibly helping others you can positively impact your organisation’s culture.

If that isn’t enough to get you talking, or you aren’t convinced your company has the right support in place, it is still worth speaking to someone, particularly in HR. In a recent Radio 4 You and Yours pone-in, Sir Cary Cooper, president of the CIPD, encouraged a caller to do this very thing, as once HR are informed, the organisation has a duty of care and legal obligation to support you.

Depending on your situation you may not feel that a ‘Little Chat’ is quite enough, perhaps a ‘Big Chat’, or formal coaching session(s) would be more effective. If that is the case, you just need to have a ‘Little Chat’ to set one up!

Either way, as a very well established telecommunications company used to say… ‘It’s Good to Talk’!