The theme for this year’s World Mental Health Day is workplace wellness. Therapist, Michael O'Sullivan, talks about how to use CBT to manage stress at work
Life is a competition and it will come as no surprise if this ‘leaks’ into the area of work.
Stress is all around us. Our expectations appear to be higher in every sphere of life, and we seem to need to be seen to be “achieving” all of the time.
We judge ourselves against the performance of other people who are smarter, better looking or appear to be getting on with life more effectively than we are.
The expectations that are placed on us in work appear to be getting higher and higher as we work harder and harder.
How stress affects our work
We find ourselves operating in what feels like states of permanent low level anxiety.
Under these conditions we “depersonalise” the people we work with and our work suffers.
We then go off work with stress or any number of physical conditions induced by stress. This then means that those who are left have to work harder until they then go off sick.
Slowing down the stress spiral
There are ways that cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can help us slow down this spiral of stress.
A ‘formulation’ in CBT is a device which joins together an individual’s current problems, background and how they cope with that problem.
Invariably coping provides short-term relief but maintains the problem in the long term, in the end making it worse.
Talking about stress at work
Formulations also “work” in the work setting.
We may tolerate stress at work because that is just the way that “things are done around here”. Like people with depression we cope by putting on a “mask” to hide their feelings.
We can make a start by talking more openly about how we feel. This will be hard because of beliefs that other colleagues just seem to be “getting on with it”.
Are we the only one who is suffering? However unless we talk, the spiral will continue.
Self-esteem and results
In my book, Working with Compassion - A training manual in compassion-focused therapy, we talk about the Drive System which is the part of us which is motivated to getting results.
Getting results at work is good because it raises self-esteem. However If this is your one source of self-esteem, you may be more vulnerable to burning out.
Cultivating your life outside of work can help. Although CBT can help individuals it really does need to be recognised that this issue needs to be owned by the organisations we work for.
An appropriate amount of stress
The World Health Organisation states that ‘healthy jobs’ are those where the pressures on workers is” appropriate” to their abilities and resources, and the amount of control they have.
The crucial word here is appropriate. We need to make sure that organisations are reminded of this definition and their contractual duties as well as their duties under the Equality Act.
I work in the NHS. Although the NHS has its own problems with stress it has used initiatives such as the CQUINs to incentivise attempts to lower occupational stress through a variety of means such as flexible working, and gym memberships.
I believe that schemes such as this can help with getting hope get a ‘foot in the door’ with changing workplace cultures which can make us ill.
- Michael O'Sullivan is the author of 'Working with comapssion' available from Pavilion Publishing for £45.00