Authored by Dr. Clarissa Hughes
Today there is a significant conversation about stress and especially about stress at work concerning women. The number of people signed off due to stress-related ill-health has grown at an alarming rate.
As a mindfulness coach, I see many women reaching out for support. Mindfulness training in and out of workplaces, yoga, meditation and the like appear strongly skewed to females. However, it’s essential that we talk more about men and stress in the workplace and beyond. Hence, we need to find more ways to encourage men to participate in mindfulness training. So on International Men’s Day, I’ve put together a short overview of stress with a focus on men.
Too much stress in the body can cause both physical and mental health problems, so it’s essential to implement stress relief strategies to your daily routine.
Our workplaces have a significant impact on the mental health of employees, positively or negatively. Stress can be a product of both our workplaces and our reactions to the pressures we encounter at work. Chronic job-related stress increases the risk of mental health problems, and an Australian study found that work accounted for 13% of depression in men (Beyond Blue, 2018).
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A large number of factors can contribute to work stress and include:
- Low job control and lack of participation in decision making
- Work overload or tight deadlines
- Unclear work role
- Job insecurity
- Long working hours
- Poor communication
- Inadequate resources
What is work-related stress?
We all encounter stress and experience stressful events in our lives, and in small doses, stress has many advantages.
The World Health Organization defines workplace stress as the response people may have when presented at work with demands and pressures that are not matched to their knowledge which challenges their ability to cope. We all encounter stress and experience stressful events in our lives, and in small doses, stress has many advantages. It can help you to overcome challenges and meet your goals. However, too much pressure can be detrimental to our health. Prolonged stress weakens the immune system, can lead to high blood pressure, anxiety, poor sleep, depression, and ill health.
If you are stressed, then these are some of the symptoms to watch out for:
- Inability to concentrate or complete tasks
- Frequent sickness
- Aching muscles and joints
- Irritability, mood swing or anxiety
- Trouble falling asleep or waking up in the night unable to get back to sleep
- Changes in appetite or drinking habits
Today a man is expected to do more of his share of domestic and child-caring duties. And even though the majority of household chores still fall more onto women, men are now experiencing more of the juggle between careers and ‘home-duties. This more equitable expectation means that being a man, today can mean juggling between competing expectations. Men are still expected to be driven, even tough, and to be successful at work while fitting in more time for home life.
Employers are increasingly allowing men to do their share of home priorities, like having time off when kids are sick or leaving early to collect children from school. However, too often the changing face of work-home balance is leading to the expectations that men “catch up” by taking work home each night. This expectation is increased 24/7 access to work provided by modern technology.
Being able to handle stress effectively allows you to focus, think more creatively, and make solve problems more effectively. Here are some practical stress-management tips:
- Slow down and step back: Stress can make small incidences seem overwhelming. Pause, take a breath, gather your thoughts, and consider the bigger picture by asking yourself “how important is this”?
- Walk away If you feel like you are getting emotional in a stressful situation. Try to create some space, and don’t resume the interaction until you feel calmer.
- Talk it out: Effective communication goes a long way; learning to listen as well as expressing your needs without demanding to have things your way.
- Burn off excess energy: Physical activity can be a great way to relieve stress. Go for a run, to the gym, or get involved in the sport.
- Mindfulness practices can help you to manage stress better and develop greater emotional resilience.
How Mindfulness Helps
How can a man better learn to balance his responsibilities of work and his family? In particular, how can he develop greater resilience to successfully cope with the ups and downs of the workplace?
Mindfulness is about being aware of what we’re doing while we’re doing it. Noticing our thinking, feeling our feelings arising as they are in the present moment. This quality of awareness means that we feel kindness, curiosity, openness, and acceptance. We can perceive with all our senses. And this takes our attention away from the stream of thoughts in our heads. We can open to recognizing that we are more than our thoughts, more than our feelings.
Mindfulness is our innate ability to be aware of and hold thoughts, feelings, sounds, body sensations, without the need for these to drive our actions all the time.
We step back. We observe reality as it is, no more, no less. We see how our mind’s habit of creating stories makes us stressed when our expectations aren’t met. When we’re mindful; we’re less reactive. We accept reality as it is.
Returning to the Present Moment
Mindfulness involves paying attention “on purpose.” It is a conscious direction of our awareness to our present moment experience that could be our breath, or an emotion, Or something as simple as walking or showering. By intentionally directing our awareness towards our present moment experiences, we decrease their effect on our lives. And we create space which in turn leads us to feel calmer, more positive, and happier.
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An excellent way of practicing mindfulness is the training of focusing on the five senses in your body: seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, or tasting. Because the practice of returning your focus to your body shifts the mind from thoughts to the body, it brings you back into the present and reduces much of the anxiety and stress that comes from your thoughts about the past nor the future.
Research has shown that engaging in focusing exercises enhances blood flow to the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain concerned with concentration, decision making, and impulse control. In particular, the left pre-frontal cortex is associated with positive emotions. This indicates that mindfulness changes the structure of the brain helping to improve your happiness, while at the same time reducing stress and increasing the ability to focus.
Sensations and Emotions
Thoughts create sensations in the body, and these sensations are interpreted as emotions. For example, the sensation of a knot in your stomach can be interpreted as fear if even it is only a perceived one. Recalling a difficult conversation with a colleague or anticipating a challenging presentation may produce the same stress response whether the threat is real or not.
Men often find it harder to notice subtle physical sensations. One of the benefits of mindfulness training is that it enhances connections in the inula, the part of the brain responsible for noticing these sensations. An essential component of mindfulness training is developing a greater understanding of how our body is responding to thoughts.
By cultivating this skill, we can gain more control over our response to these sensations. For example, anger may be felt in different parts of the body, e.g., the abdomen, chest, hands, jaw, or neck. Mindfulness allows us to pay attention to our experiences and sensation with non-judgmental curiosity, rather than getting caught up in the thoughts. This awareness is transformative as it allows our thoughts to settle and in turn our emotions.
When we learn to bring our attention to the present moment, feelings of stress are reduced. We learn to shift our attention from our thoughts to the present moment experience.
A Little Breathing Space Exercise:
Next time you’re feeling stressed and pulled in different directions. Pause and try this exercise:
Sit comfortably with both feet on the floor and try and get into a position that is comfortable enough for you to relax without becoming so comfortable you fall asleep.
Let your breathing slow down. Focus on your breath until you find a sense or feel of the rhythm that is comfortable and soothing for you. If that seems hard, don’t worry breathe in a way that’s comfortable for you.
Then start to bring your attention to your body. Start by focusing on your legs. Notice how they feel. Do you feel any tension, tightness, pain, concentrated energy? Try to be with it for a minute and notice what you’re feeling. Zone in on your uncomfortable areas. Focus on them. Breathe into them and see what happens.
Now move down through the body, to your shoulders. Repeating the body scan steps, noticing if there’s tightness, uncomfortable feelings, tension, pressure, or pain. Breathe into the. Stay with those feelings. Continue with this, through the stomach and back. Relax, breathe, and feel the tension flowing away.
Bring the attention to the arms, hands, and fingers. Notice any tension, pain, or discomfort and imagine that it is released
Finally, bring attention to the tension that sits in your head and neck. Notice how you feel, where you hold your stress, what sensations you’re experiencing. Breathe, notice, relax.
Rest and focus on the whole body. Each time you breathe out to focus on the keyword RELAX for a minute or so. Imagine your body becoming more relaxed.
Take a deeper breath and open your eyes.
How do you feel? More relaxed?
Remember mindfulness is a practice, so don’t be disheartened if you found it difficult. Like anything, new practice made it easier.
Beyond Blue (2018). Men in the workplace. Retrieved from http://www.beyondblue.org.au.
ULifeLine (2018). How do you tell the difference between good stress and bad stress? Retrieved from http://www.ulifeline.org.
World Health Organization (2018). Stress at the workplace. Retrieved from http://www.who.int.