Stress impacts most of us at some point in our lives. Over the last few challenging years, we have seen a continuing rise in stress and burnout at work. A You Gov poll found over half of all workers in the Uk are stressed or very stressed at work and a recent CIPD report stated that 17.9 million work days were lost to stress, anxiety, and depression in the UK.
Workplace stress is a huge issue for the individual and also the organisation, which has a legal responsibility to reduce stress. The HSE management standards are a good place for organisations to start, a framework to measure, engage employees, and action plan stress reduction.
Stress is a topic I regularly cover in courses, focusing on many different aspects. Here I want to explore how self compassion can change our relationship with stress thereby reducing its impact.
What is Self Compassion?
Self compassion is the ability to show ourselves the same kindness, understanding, and compassion during challenging times as we would show others. It is great to gain support in difficult moments from others but it is also important we can soothe and care for ourselves.
The relationship we have with our inner voice will last a lifetime. Building awareness of our inner talk enables us to access our emotional connection to external events, and deepen our connection to self. This builds awareness of how we deal with challenges, our triggers and patterns of behaviours.
It allows us to explore the right action for a situation, moving forward without self criticism, judgment, or blame. According to Kristen Neff self compassion has three core components:
How can it help stress
All of the 3 components help us to be with the stress rather than fighting it. We can feel more connected to others, knowing we all experience struggles and this allows us to view our experiences from a different lens.
The first step with stress is to bring awareness to our feelings. If we ignore and suppress the stress will grow, we need to bring it into the light. Mindfulness can support this, if formal mindfulness does not resonate that is ok. Could you stop and notice when stress is building for a moment, how does your body feel, is there tension, how is your breathing?Just notice.
Allow yourself to notice the stress without thinking “ I shouldn’t feel like this”. “no one else feels this” or “I am useless, I can’t cope” or whatever phrase your inner critic would usually say. With this acceptance we start to diffuse its power, we can then consider what would help in this situation rather than berating ourselves.
We seem to think we can do it all and do it all perfectly- this is a myth. Ask yourself what is most important for me today and in your life, and link this to your values. How can you move towards that in this moment, in this day, in this year? This will help you make decisions that work for you, rather than what you feel you "should" do.
Self compassion practices
As we any new skill self compassion takes time and practice. We often give up if we find something new challenging, so keep it small and simple to start. Try one of these practices.
How would you treat a friend?
Think of a time a friend was stressed, what did you say to them? how did you feel towards them? Write this down. Now think of a time you were stressed, what did your inner voice say? How did you feel towards yourself? Write this down.
Compare the two, could you change how you speak to yourself? What could you say? What fears come to mind if you are kinder towards yourself? Write this down.
Build awareness of your inner voice, notice the tone and language and see if you can treat yourself as a friend.
Learning to self soothe when feeling stressed is an important technique to activate the parasympathetic nervous system. This will calm the body, reduce physical symptoms and allow you to process the distress. It links to that initial touch we received as babies, it allows us to feel safe and secure.
It may feel awkward at first, that is ok, notice that feeling.
Rest your hand on your heart (or if this feels too hard to start, maybe touch your arm, face or belly) take a few breaths with your hand on your heart, tell yourself you are ok, there is nothing to fear, you are safe. Notice how your body begins to calm and rest.
These exercises and many more can be found on Kristen Neff’s website, why not try a few to see which resonates with you?
Impact of workplace culture
We started by looking at high numbers experiencing workplace stress, we must acknowledge that workplace cultures have a huge impact on individuals. The old-fashioned competitive nature of a workplace leads to burnout. Organisations with a high turnover of staff, who are seen as commodities and replaceable are unlikely to be supportive.
Those cultures are also counterproductive for organisations as they lead to lower productivity due to absence, resignations and demotivation. A supportive culture on the other hand will not only support individuals but also improve outcomes.
Leaders and managers need the skills to lead compassionately, reduce stress, improve creativity, autonomy, and performance. Why not download our compassionate leader's infographic and share it in your organisation or find out about our compassionate leadership courses? We need to take action for cultures to change.
Stress is an inevitable part of life and not all stress is bad, it can help us see where we are not aligned with our values or where we are pushing too hard.
Remember to show yourself kindness and self compassion as we are all doing our best and our best is good enough.
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