How I Cope is an on-going blog series where colleagues from across the sector – and at different stages of their career – share their experiences of self-care and wellbeing.
Mental health and balancing work and life is increasingly recognised as essential to our happiness and ability to make the most of our talents. By encouraging greater awareness and exchanging tips and helpful advice, How I Cope aims to create a space for us to support each other, and the health of our sector in general.
Antonia Canal works as Development Officer, National Lottery Heritage Fund
Let’s talk about stress, that thing we juggle on a daily basis. In ‘How to Stay Sane’, Philippa Perry says ‘the right kind of stress…will push us to learn new things and be creative, but it will not be so overwhelming that it tips us over into panic’. In this post, I’ll share my approach to keeping stress productive.
To begin with, I must acknowledge that stress is closely linked to our mental health. Mind has an excellent managing stress guide, with links on where to get extra help. I would urge you to seek additional support, if that is what you need. For what it’s worth, here’s how I stay on top of stress.
Let’s get physical
I experience stress physically. My heart rate goes up, my breathing gets shallow, and I feel nervous and edgy. Managing stress starts with taking care of my bod – it’s all about the basics.
I recommend drinking plenty of water. I try and keep an eye on how many glasses I’m having each day. Next, watch the caffeine. I love tea, I adore coffee, but when I’m under pressure, that extra caffeine hit can be the difference between keeping calm and feeling the nerves. Lastly, be well rested. Get your sleep! Stress can really affect my sleep, making it even more important to clock off, unwind and hit the zzzzs. Remember, 6-9 hours a night is golden!
Tricks of the Trade
So, we’re well rested, hydrated and watching the caffeine. But stress still creeps up. Times like these, I rely on my various tools, be they digital or off-line, to keep me together. One of my stress triggers is feeling I have a tonne of stuff to do, all urgent and all due right now. I feel overwhelmed, I can’t make decisions and I hit the avoidance hard. Sound familiar?
Keeping on top of task management makes a big difference. I take this seriously! My last job sent me off for prioritisation training. It was an area I really struggled in. The light bulb moment was being asked what I understood as the essentials of my role. At first, it felt like too big a question, where do you even start? But, when I stopped and really considered it, I found I could narrow down what was critical. If you had to describe your main purpose at work in a line or two, where would you start? Gauging what’s fundamental really helps when prioritising that mega workload.
I rely on clear methods for organising my work. It can be whatever works for you, be it a handwritten list, a trello board (game changer for me!) or your calendar. The key is to consciously know how you manage tasks and use your method with intention. Set deadlines and be realistic about what you can achieve. Recognise what you must absolutely prioritise for that day or week, and stick to it. And know that even if things slip, the world will not end. Easier said than done, but worth remembering!
A top-tip on the task management, stress-remedying front is remove your inbox from the to-do-list mix. If an email is going to take more than 5 mins to deal with, bump it up to your task list. And, if you can, close your inbox when not in use. The notifications distraction is real and a proper stress starter for me. I try and only check my emails 2-3 times a day, with my inbox otherwise closed or minimised (see how I cheated there?).
My next trick from the toolbox is to take a break, an easy one to skip when under pressure. You’re entitled to breaks, and if you’re feeling stressed you need one. I try to get up from my desk once an hour or so, even if it’s just for some water. Get the blood flowing, step away, and take a minute or two. And you know what’s coming next – take that lunch break! If you can, eat away from your workstation. Get some fresh air, do a quick 10 minutes around the block, throw in a Beyonce soundtrack for added benefit.
Call on your crew
Even when on top of my various tips and tricks, stress can still inch in. Sometimes, I need to reach out to those around me. We often have allies in our places of work. You might just need to check-in; you might need some tasks taken off you. But you shouldn’t be stressing out alone. Remember the networks you have outside of work too, be they formal or otherwise. I have to shout out the fantastic Museum Detox, a network of fellow BAME heritage professionals, and a regular source of support and solidarity for me in my daily grind.
If you’re someone who is regularly fire fighting stressful situations at work, chances are your interventions will only go so far. When stress is out of your sphere of influence or control, there will only ever be so much you can do. Speak to your manager. What could be taken off your plate? Speak to your union rep. Ultimately, your health and wellbeing has to come first.
If you are interested in contributing to the How I Cope series, please contact us. We welcome anonymous submissions, as well as named.