Sick days are on the rise, according to the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development (CIPD). And, perhaps unsurprisingly — given the cost of living crises and a change in working conditions post-pandemic, ‘worry’ (aka stress) is cited as one of the biggest reasons for absenteeism.
In total sick days have jumped annually from 5.8 to 7.8 days per annum and 76 percent of organisations reported stress-related absence. But it’s not just external factors that are to blame for more and more people needing to take time off because of stress. The top cause for this jump? Heavy workloads.
Vicky Walker, Director of People at Westfield Health, explains that when it comes to supporting a sick workforce, prevention is better than cure.
“Employees’ physical and mental health should be at the top of any company’s priority list – not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because it makes good business sense,” she explains.
She’s not wrong. Poor mental health costs the UK economy up to £45 billion each year, and work-related stress ripples into personal lives too, affecting relationships, finances and dependencies on drugs and alcohol.
Stress can seriously impact mental and physical health, and can contribute to heart disease, stroke, depression and anxiety (amongst many other things). And while tackling systems and processes within a workplace might feel like a David and Goliath task, remember — David won.
So, if you’re too worried to go to work — or are beginning to feel the pressure of work stresses mount up, here are some things you can do, according to Ruth Kudzi, a Psychology and Neuroscience Expert.
Step one: Identify what you can *actually* control
“The first thing employees can do to help themselves worry less is to stop and ask themselves; what is ONE thing I can do right now to reduce my worry and stress levels?” Asks Kudzi, who says finding a sense of perspective of what is within your control (and what is not) is a crucial first step.
She also recommends doing this throughout the day, if worry or stress persists. ”By checking in regularly and reflecting, it helps us to identify our triggers and this allows us to intervene and do what works for us at the start, rather than when we are nearer crisis point,” Kudzi explains.
The reason being, that once we have reached a state of crisis, it may be too late to find our way back down. ”We know that stress levels are impacted by many different variables in life and so, it’s important for us to understand more about stress, recognise our own stressor signs and find coping mechanisms that work for us,” says Kudzi.
Once you know what is in your control, you can begin to start removing things that are weighing on you. “Imagine there’s a bucket inside your body, collecting every ounce of your stress and worry,” says Kudzi, “Sometimes, we have so much going on that our buckets overflow.”
Kudzi suggests asking ourselves what we can remove from our stress buckets, “It could be answering every single email, or getting the laundry done before tea time.”
Whatever it is for you, taking stuff off your plate and reducing your tasks or responsibilities could really help manage the day-to-day.
Step two: Acknowledge and accept your feelings, then breathe
″Stress isn’t avoidable, but it can be managed,” says Kudzi. She advises that there’s no point in running away from your emotions, instead, it’s better to feel your way through them.
“When we’re worried and stressed, cortisol levels leap up and we find it difficult to make decisions. If you’re feeling anxious, worried, emotional, or angry.”
Identifying emotions can help us reduce stress and help us regain control of our minds.
Sudzi says it’s best to remember that our emotions are there to be felt and acknowledged. And, that performing breathing exercises can help reduce the physical symptoms of stress.
Kudzi recommends trying simple breathing exercises such as ‘box breathing’ to help reduce cortisol levels in the body and bring you back to the here and now (and away from that dangerous spiral).
“Breathe in for four, hold for four, exhale for four and hold for four… and repeat,” she instructs.
This technique helps to distract the mind and calms the nervous system by stimulating the vagus nerve, the main nerve of your parasympathetic nervous system. By soothing it, it helps your body enter a state of ‘rest and digest’ and away from ‘fight or flight’, which, in turn, helps you make more mindful decisions and less knee-jerked panicked ones.
Step three: Prioritise and protect your peace with boundaries
If you’re noticing your calendar fill at breakneck speed, or your to-do list accumulate into a Sisyphean set of tasks, then you might (quite understandably) want to rage quite there and then. But, it doesn’t have to be this way.
Instead, focus on reprioritising your workload. “Take a step back and ask yourself: ‘What are my priorities?’ and ‘How could I be more effective here?’,” says Kudzi.
Asking these questions can help you to find where your attention is most needed, and allow you to take even more out of your stress bucket.
While setting firm boundaries at work might bring a dry lump to your throat, remember that setting boundaries is a reasonable thing to do — and not something you should need to apologise for.
If you’re unsure of how to set a boundary at work, Kudzi suggests using clear and direct language if you’re unable to do something.
“Don’t worry if people aren’t happy about it - people may respond negatively to you setting boundaries but don’t feel guilty,” says Kudzi. “Some people take advantage of a lack of boundaries and might not enjoy your decision to protect yourself.”
She suggests having a post-boundary setting mantra, such as ‘I’m doing this because I care about myself.’ And to remember that practice makes perfect.