Last month I started working with two new Coaching clients.
Both were senior men in their mid to late thirties. One was a Managing Director; the other a Sales Director.
The MD comes across as a really cool Antipodean dude into music, gigs and surfing. He’s also a highly successful entrepreneur.
The Sales Director is evidently incredibly competent having run big Commercial operations abroad. He’s also a lovely guy – very values-driven and team-oriented.
However, both are struggling big time with stress.
The MD eventually confided in me saying:
“I know it’s getting really bad when I’m nearly vomiting in the shower every morning.”
Whilst the Sales Director told me:
“I don’t recognise myself anymore. This anxiety is impacting my whole life.”
A few weeks before an old friend had contacted me to ask to meet for a coffee. From the brevity of his message, I knew something was up.
Again a senior guy in the ad industry – this time 48 years of age.
He rather hesitantly shared with me how low and anxious he was feeling – not something he found at all easy and well outside his comfort zone.
“I’ve just never felt anything like this before” he confided in me.
These are not your stereotypical stress bunnies.
These are not part of the media-dubbed “snowflake” generation although I work with Gen Ys and Gen Zs on a daily basis struggling with the same issues.
Yet these older typically robust and professionally competent men and women are seeking help more and more for stress and anxiety.
I’ve personally been shocked by the increase in the number of Coaching clients I’ve seen in the last year to 18 months who are struggling with stress/anxiety/depression – all so closely aligned.
I genuinely believe there is an anxiety epidemic in our workplaces right now and I think the fall-out could be huge unless we wake up to it and make some pretty radical changes fast.
3 Key Factors Causing An Anxiety Epidemic
1. Constant change and uncertainty.
It’s a cliché to say we live in a world of constant change; the VUCA world the business journals love to allude to. But change really is the new normal.
The pace of change is like nothing we have ever experienced before. And it’s the breadth of it too.
One of my new Coachees said to me in our first Coaching session together:
“Literally nothing stays the same; everything is constantly shifting. You never know where you stand.”
The other said:
“I’m sailing into a sea of complete unknown”
Well if David Rock, an acclaimed neuroscientist, is right and certainty is one of our core social needs as human beings, then it’s no wonder so many of us are existing in survival mode.
2. 24/7 Communication
A lot has been said in the media about 24/7 communication but the key for me is that people rarely if ever switch off – literally, physically or metaphorically.
It’s hard enough to switch off your brain when you’re in a stressful job or industry.
But when you:
· Get work e-mails on your phone day and night
· Constantly check social media
· Use your iPad in bed and have your phone as an alarm clock (so it has to be in your bedroom – an excuse I’m given time and time again!)
… then there’s rarely any downtime and sleep is often disrupted.
Our bodies and minds don’t get enough vital recovery time so we simply don’t have the physical or mental energy to cope with the tasks at hand.
3. E-Mail Overwhelm
This last one might sound daft to anyone who doesn’t experience it, but I can’t tell you how many times a week I see and hear the anxiety caused by overflowing e-mail inboxes. It’s incredible.
When you receive hundreds of e-mails a day, as many people do, you end up feeling constantly overwhelmed. You can never feel on top of things.
Your e-mail inbox has become the new to-do list except it’s not controlled by you; it’s dictated by hundreds of other people.
Add to this the fact that people typically treat all e-mails as urgent and it’s a big issue. No wonder we’re so unproductive!
Another of my clients struggling with this said to me:
“But my role is all about relationship-building and people feel spurned if you don’t get back to them straight away.”
There are a lot of fascinating beliefs held about e-mail etiquette!
Meantime you’re not getting on with the work you know you need to do; your real to-do list – your agenda.
And so the pressure mounts.
Obviously, there are lots of reasons why people get anxious but I would say these are the three most common themes I hear in my Coaching sessions.
So What Can We Do About This Anxiety Epidemic?
Of course, there are lots of practical things both companies and individuals can do, so here are just a few ideas:
1. Talk to your people as often as possible. Share with them as much as you can. Openness and honesty breed trust and confidence – key elements in quelling anxious thoughts.
2. Provide work mobiles. That way your people aren’t getting work e-mails on their personal phones and can more easily have a switch-off strategy at appropriate times.
3. Actively encourage downtime. Provide chill-out spaces, games rooms etc at work. Encourage your people to take a proper break – go to the gym, go out for a walk, have lunch with a mate. All the research says that productivity will soar as a result.
4. Stop sending e-mails late at night. If you need to write them then, because it’s the only time you have, put them in your draft folder and send them out first thing in the morning. If people senior to us, or our clients, send us e-mails outside of working hours we typically think they expect a response there and then!
5. Have an internal e-mail embargo one day a week. Encourage people to meet face to face and talk things through. When they see how much more quickly they can resolve matters or how much more creative they can be by bouncing ideas around, they might be less inclined to make e-mail their default communication.
1. Talk to your line manager or boss to get as much certainty as you can about your role, potential changes in the company, your future and so on. In fact, anything you’re anxious about. Our imagined future is typically far worse than the reality!
2. Diarise and commit to downtime. Things you really enjoy doing and that relax you or simply make you feel good. This isn’t a luxury or something to feel guilty about. It’s a necessity and will make you feel far more motivated, energised and positive.
3. Turn off your devices from time to time. Set yourself some boundaries and stick to them eg. no work e-mails after 8pm
4. Turn off your e-mail pinger. You know the one I mean! The one that tells you an e-mail has come in and totally distracts you from what you’re doing. Neuroscientific research tells us that it can take up to 25 minutes to regain the level of focus you had on a task before you got distracted (even for a nanosecond).
5. Keep iPads and iPhones out of the bedroom. We’ve all read about the impact of blue light on our sleep but we continue to ignore it at our peril. Oh – and buy yourself an alarm clock so you can’t use that as an excuse!
6. Make sleep a priority. It’s no surprise that sleep deprivation is a form of torture. You simply cannot remain resilient with insufficient sleep.
7. Have a strategy for e-mail – whatever works best for you. Some people aim for a zero in-box; others only check e-mail at certain times of the day; whilst others put their out of office message on when they know they really need to concentrate on something. Let’s face it when you’re in a meeting for 2 or 3 hours you can’t respond to e-mails so what’s the difference?
Ultimately all of these practical strategies for both companies and individuals will help enormously but there’s even better news
The Even Better News
The even better news is that you actually have total control.
Yes, that’s what I said.
You have total control.
Sound contradictory given everything I’ve said before?
Well, it’s not.
You may not have control over what happens to you or the situation you’re in but you do have control over how you respond.
And it’s how you respond that causes your anxiety.
· What you’re thinking
· What you’re saying to yourself
· How you’re framing the situation
And so on.
Most of us think stressful things happen to us. But they don’t.
Things happen around us and we personalise them and make them stressful by the way we think about them.
It’s why one of my favourite coaching questions is:
“How are you stressing yourself out?”
You’re in the driving seat!
However, despite that fact, companies still really need to take note. There is an anxiety epidemic in our midst.
Forget snowflakes. This is one mega snowball hurtling down the hillside, causing avalanches and leaving potential devastation in its wake. Both personal and professional.
It’s time to take action FAST!