Finding an antidote to the stress of ‘always on’ workplace culture

Resilience training focuses on how to become less busy but more productive

It used to be that for the first few days back after the holiday break, people were still mellow from their time off and workplace pressures hadn’t yet started to build. But almost overnight that has changed. Organisations are now focused on achieving their objectives for the new year, activity and pressure have ramped up exponentially and the demarcation between work and home life is already beginning to blur for many people.

It’s become the norm to be always busy and to answer work emails out of hours or to log on to do something work-related after dinner. But just because something is presented as “normal” doesn’t mean it is. And organisations that are aggressively pushing the always-on agenda are creating levels of work-related stress we were not designed to cope with.

What's concerning me about this 'always on' work culture is that the next generation are learning bad habits

In broad terms, workplace stress occurs when there is an imbalance between the demands being placed on an individual and their ability to cope with them.

Some of the physical manifestations of chronic stress include fatigue, aches and pains, migraine, constant colds, backache, stomach problems and skin rashes. On an emotional level irritability, impatience, anxiety, depression and moodiness can be indicators, while regularly cancelling personal plans because of work, not having time to meet friends or eat a meal with one’s family are the social symptoms of too much pressure.

Unfortunately, once people get into the perpetual motion mindset, it’s a self-fulfilling cycle that’s difficult to break.

Lawyers working in employment law have already flagged a rise in stress-related claims and say it will only keep growing unless employers actively encourage switch-off time and become more pro-active about managing people’s workloads. This includes paying particular attention to off-site employees or teams whose working patterns are much harder to monitor.

That said, it’s not always easy to balance corporate goals with employee wellbeing and many organisations don’t even try. But those that do are wasting their time if their own people perpetuate the problem by sending after-hours texts and emails and setting unreasonable deadlines that mean others have to constantly work exceptionally long hours to meet them.

There is also an onus on employees to bring their concerns to their employer’s notice. The Health & Safety Authority’s Work-Related Stress – A Guide for Employers points out that “Employer’s duties are dependent upon them being made fully aware of the employee’s stress and its perceived causes”.

Éibhlín Johnston is no stranger to high-pressure environments, having spent 30 years as a senior manager in the financial services sector. “What’s concerning me about this ‘always on’ work culture is that the next generation are learning bad habits from those ahead of them, so it’s going to keep happening unless greater efforts are made to call a halt,” she says.

“I was working in a very fast paced, very stressful world and, looking back on it, the best word to describe it was overwhelming. Because you can’t see the wood for the trees you just keep going and going, but it had an impact on me, on my kids and on my marriage,” she says.

In 2018 Johnston called a halt and took time out. She travelled widely to listen to thought leaders in the field of training and executive coaching and subsequently set up Odd Socks last year to focus on stress reduction, resiliency training and burnout prevention in the corporate sector. The programmes, for groups and individuals, are all based around "transformational coaching" which Johnston describes as a means of quietening the mind.

“Most coaching looks at what’s wrong and how to get out of the dips in life. Transformational coaching shows you how to avoid the dips in the first place and focuses on what is right, not on what’s wrong,” she says. “Typical coaching relates future goals to the current situation. Transformational coaching starts with the future in mind allowing for a total transformation.”

Constantly busy

Johnston believes that much of the stress people face in the workplace is caused by being in a constantly busy state of mind.

“We get so caught up in our thoughts and habitual thinking patterns that we create this whole scenario of anxiety for ourselves,” she says. “Little things become big things and when you compound them with a smart remark from a colleague, a sick child at home and a looming deadline, you’re continually pushing people’s resilience to the limit and not everyone will bounce back.

“The idea of resilience training is that you learn how to settle the mind so you don’t go into that spiral in the first place.”

Johnston has written a book, Gut Throat Leadership, and has based a six-month coaching programme around it that covers topics such as dealing with difficult people, decision making and being too busy. There is also a three-hour workshop called The Busy Mind, which focuses on how to become less busy but more productive.

“Busy is one of the most overused words in the English language,” Johnston says. “If you’re too busy you can’t really see what’s going on and you may need to let go of certain things.

“Since setting up my new business I am busier than ever but it’s a different kind of busy to when I was in banking. This is productive busyness and I don’t feel overwhelmed by all I have to do. I now go from work to home, not home to work.”