We know that stress causes misery and destroys lives. We know that stress can kill, although we push that one away to the backs of our minds. A report just out from insurer Friends Life shows that stress costs UK companies an incredible £690 million ($1.1 billion) a day in wasted wages.
That’s a lot of money, if you take the productivity angle; but it’s also a lot of human unhappiness, if you focus on individuals and their lives.
At the core of all the advice about how to improve this situation is the maxim that people suffering from stress should talk about it, and bosses should listen.
Talking about how you are feeling isn’t easy, but it’s something you need to do. There are two reasons for this:
First, bottling things up and pretending that you are fine will only create more stress as the strain of repressing emotions takes its toll.
Second, if the appropriate people at work do not know that you are suffering, they cannot take any action.
Talk to your line manager, or an HR person, or a trusted friend, it is said. Yeah right. Have you met my line manager? And so-called HR? They were off school the day the understanding gene was handed out.
And even if I did come clean, I’d have marked my card as weak and ruined my promotion prospects, and they would keep giving me funny looks or send emails with lots of smiley supportive faces.
As for the friend – duh, isn’t that what we do all the time, swap stories about how much pressure we’re under? You just end up exhausted or with a hangover.
OK. There’s some truth in all the above, but you can find positive and helpful ways of expressing what’s going on with you.
First, though, deal with the idea that stress is a weakness, and it is something to be ashamed of. It isn’t. Say it until you believe it, because it’s the truth.
Furthermore, the figures (4 in 10 people) suggest that your manager with the busy air and the clicky heels and your colleague with the smart crack for all occasions could be inwardly suffering as much as you.
A friend in need
Decide what is the purpose of talking to a trusted friend. Letting off steam is fine, and you probably already do this. But it’s more constructive to have a conversation which helps you to define how you are feeling, what is causing it, and what could be done to make the situation better.
Think about who, in your circle of family and friends, would be the best person for this conversation. You need someone who will listen non-judgementally, understand what you are saying and not get distracted by their own concerns. If you are not fortunate enough to have such a lovely person in your life, you might think about buying a bit of professional time with someone who has the skills to take you through this process.
This process should clarify your thoughts – it might make you feel better as well – and it will give you the material for raising the subject at work.
Prepare what to say
Write down a clear statement. You need to make clear the pressure you are under and to suggest the cause, without revealing intimate details of how it is affecting you. Keep it professional. Don’t say things like ‘I just can’t cope any more.’
Remember your audience — no matter how friendly your boss is, you’re not talking to a mate, not in this context. A statement like, ‘I want to tell you that I am experiencing some difficulties/symptoms/which I think/my doctor says are stress-related.’
Write down specific examples of circumstances which caused excessive pressure. Your list might be long at first — keep your list in case you need it, but select a few of the most significant points to bring up.
Rehearse what you are going to say. The more familiar the words, the more likely you are to get through the meeting without becoming emotional. Look on your material as a script you have to deliver. Practise speaking slowly and clearly, so that you don’t start gabbling
Choose your person
There might be clearly defined procedures in place, or you might need to select the appropriate person.
You need to talk to someone with the authority to act. Resist the temptation to go to the person you think is the nicest, or who you know will understand. It’s a manager’s job to understand.
Prepare for the meeting
Arrange a time for this conversation. Do some calming and breathing exercises before you go in. Take your notes in with you. Say that you would like make the odd note during the meeting. If you get upset, don’t apologise. Of course you’re upset. If you need to pause, say ‘I would like to take a minute’ and go outside.
Treating your stress like a problem which you want to discuss and solve is a useful strategy for bringing it to the attention of the appropriate people at work.
It’s hard to think clearly when you are under pressure, but taking the time to develop your understanding of your feelings and finding a way of talking about them in public will help your situation at work. It may even gain you respect, and it will certainly make you feel better and more in control.
I have written two popular books about how to deal with stress. How to Cope With Stress at Work, and The Good Stress Guide are both available as ebooks from Amazon worldwide