How to stay sane in the workplace

Jonathan Trott’s dramatic surprise departure from the Ashes tour reminds us that stress is a serious problem

TEST cricket, the gentleman’s game with emphasis on the gentle, is the last sport you’d envisage being a rigorous mental challenge. But just one test into the Ashes tour, the out-of-form batsman Jonathan Trott followed Marcus Trescothick and Mike Yardy in taking voluntary leave from the sport for a “stress related condition”. The consternation with which the news was received shows just how poorly stress is understood.

For employees in the City – where long hours and massive workloads are worn as a badge of pride – it’s no surprise that having difficulty coping is still taboo. Of course, the stress involved is different to that experienced by top level sportsmen. In a sense, there’s more at stake – sport is, after all, only sport.

People who work in high pressured financial services jobs tend to be able to cope with stress well, which paradoxically makes them more at risk when things become unmanageable. When you’re used to batting life’s problems out of the park, experiencing the insurmountable can be even more traumatic. As Dr Richard Bowskill of the Priory says, “[City workers are] often high achievers who are used to success and working hard to affect change. When they run into situations – personal, professional or a combination of the two – where that doesn’t happen, they can run into trouble. The usual response is do everything even more vigorously and then they risk coming unstuck.”

A healthy level of stress is important as it improves productivity and provides a buzz that motivates you to apply yourself successfully.

There is, however, a well-recognised stress-performance curve, which shows that, after a certain point, stress becomes a hindrance. “If you become too stressed your productivity will drop off, sleep deprivation will creep in and you become irritable. People need to be able to identify when they enter that stage because that’s when you move from stress into anxiety; then it becomes harder to recover.”

When you’re under a lot of pressure at work, being able to switch off when you get home is important as it’s the prolonged periods of unhealthy stress that bring about the neurochemical changes we associate with more serious mental conditions.

People tend not to realise the health-risks posed. As Dr Bowskill says, “Stress and anxiety are major risk factors for heart disease and high blood pressure. Studies show they have as bad an effect as smoking.”

Here are some tips for keeping stress at bay.

Dr Richard bowskill’s tips for keeping stress at bay:

1 Identifying it early is vital, then you can do something before it turns into something more serious.

2 Critically evaluate your work-life balance. Don't be pulled unnecessarily into working excessive hours. Be productive when you're at work so you can afford to have leisure time in which you can really relax.

3 Don’t check emails outside of work time and switch your phone off at night. You need to get rid of that constant nagging feeling – one way of doing so is by cutting off channels of professional contact.

4 If you do have to check your email over the weekend, set aside one hour to do it and don't check them after that.

5 Exercise regularly – studies show that 40 minutes of aerobic exercise three times a week can help ward off stress. Many people also swear by therapies such as yoga and t'ai chi, which help relaxation.

6 Take stock of your caffeine and alcohol use. It's important to avoid “laptop drinking” ie when people get home, open a laptop and a bottle of wine and continue to work. It's a lethal combination of drinking and failing to relax.