Stress is a reality for all of us. In fact, we need it. You wouldn’t get very far in life without it.
Healthy stress is what gets us out of bed and into the office each morning. So we shouldn’t be so quick to assume stress is always bad. Like most other things in life, it’s a bit more complicated than that.
Stress exists on a spectrum. Too little and you’ll never get anything done. Too much and you’ll begin to experience anxiety and other mental health issues. Ideally, you want to be somewhere in the middle. But our modern smartphone-driven culture is making it increasingly challenging to achieve this state of balance.
If you’re always switched-on, ready to respond immediately to the next candidate email or message, you’re giving your mind very little opportunity to truly rest and recuperate. That’s a problem. Work in this way for too long and your battery will run flat. You’ll be burnt out with absolutely nothing left to give.
If you’ve been in recruitment long enough, you’ve probably seen this happen to at least a couple of colleagues. It’s very easy to avoid taking the issue seriously by thinking “unlucky for them, but that’ll never happen to me. I’ve got things under control.” To put it bluntly, that kind of thinking is delusional. You are not a superhero.
Sure, you might be able to tolerate much more stress than the average person. But let it continue on long enough without taking action, and it’s going to catch up with you. Guaranteed. Just in case you need any more convincing, consider the fact that work-related stress and mental illness now accounts for over half of work absences in the UK.
Fortunately, we all have the ability to take responsibility for managing our stress. When you understand the underlying biology, you can learn how to control stress and use it to your advantage rather than let it overwhelm you.
Our brains aren't suited to the demands of modern recruitment. We evolved to deal with life-and-death struggles on the African savannas, not overflowing inboxes and irritating hiring managers. So when we’re at work, our biology leaves us prone to false emergencies.
The stress response – also known as fight or flight – kicks in when we process information that indicates we’re under threat or facing a challenge. Our heartbeat quickens, our muscles tense, and our thinking becomes more rapid.
All these changes happen for a reason - they prepare us for explosive movement. Very useful if you’re trying to escape from a lion you’ve just stumbled upon. Not so helpful if you’re hunched over a desk trying to prep several candidates for final interviews.
In an office environment, these bodily changes tend to do us more harm than good. Our digestive system slows down as energy is redirected to muscle cells. The same thing happens to our immune system. Energy is conserved by shutting it down temporarily. This is why you often get sick at times of increased stress, and why excessive stress is associated with long-term, chronic illnesses.
The problem we face is that this response gets unnecessarily activated all the time while we’re at work. We don’t need to be facing a real tangible threat to get stressed. The mere perception of a threat is enough. This is why a heated conversation with your manager can be intensely stressful, even though there is no chance of actual physical danger. Again, our brains just aren’t designed for the situations we routinely find ourselves in at work.
If you feel like things are starting to get on top of you, first reflect on the fact you aren’t alone. We all share the same biology so stress affects us all. Some people are better at masking it than others, but rest assured it’s there, bubbling under the surface. The only people who don’t feel stress are those without a pulse. So don’t beat yourself up if you start to feel overwhelmed - all that does is further amp up your stress response.
Second, understand you have the power to turn down the volume of your stress response. You just need to take the right kind of action. There are three effective approaches you can use to achieve this:
Remove the source
Take control of your physiology through exercise
Reduce your baseline stress level with meditation
A good starting point is to sit down and reflect on where most of the stress at work is coming from. Once you’ve identified key sources, then it’s time to do something.
Request a brief meeting with your manager and go prepared to explain why you’re feeling stressed out. Try to be specific as that makes it much easier to find tangible solutions. Simply stating that you’re “stressed out” doesn’t give an employer much to work with.
Just speaking about the issue will start to eliminate some of your feelings of helplessness, and give your employer a chance to try to rectify the situation. Keep in mind that the vast majority of employers would much rather help you take steps to reduce stress than risk losing you. High turnover rates terrify most agency owners. But they can only help if they know about the problem, they aren’t mind readers.
Sometimes this approach doesn’t work. There’s no shortage of dickheads in this world. If you get the distinct feeling that things are never going to change at work, then it’s definitely time to start looking at new jobs.
Yes, you’ve heard it a thousand times before. But that’s because it works. Complaining about stress while doing zero exercise is equivalent to keeping your hand in a fire and complaining that it burns. Of course it does. Being sedentary 24/7 screws up your physiology and makes you far more likely to experience burnout.
There’s no point sugar coating it. When it comes to managing stress, this is a non-negotiable. You can come up with all the excuses in the world for why now isn’t the right time to get active. But you’d be much better off taking some personal responsibility for how you’re feeling.
Exercise releases endorphins and ramps up the production of feel-good neurotransmitters. This not only makes you feel good but it also counteracts the negative effects of elevated stress hormone levels. Exercise puts you in control of the volume knob on your own stress response.
But an important word of caution - don’t fall into the trap of viewing exercise as just one more thing on your to-do list. That’s going to make things worse. You need to find an activity you actually enjoy doing. If you don’t know what is yet, then it’s time to start experimenting. The possibilities are literally endless. Whether it’s 5-a-side football or a meditative meander in a local park, all activity serves the same purpose. Anything is better than binging Netflix on the sofa.
The mindfulness movement is catching on for a reason. Just like exercise, meditation actually works. You can’t argue with the science at this point. In this same way you can train your body, you can train your brain. Attention and focus are mental muscles you can strengthen. And doing so helps to reduce stress and create a greater sense of calm.
Although mindfulness has its roots in Buddhism, you don’t need to buy into any spiritual woo woo to practice it. All it involves is directing your attention to your body and breath to help improve concentration and promote greater awareness of your own thought processes.
When you start to practice you’ll soon notice that your mind constantly wanders away from the breath. This is fine. As soon as you notice your mind has wandered, you may be tempted to think you’ve failed, but actually, it’s a win. Why? Because every time you start over by redirecting your attention back to your breath it’s like doing a bicep curl for your brain. Your ability to remain calm and sustain focus will increase over time with consistent practice.
To really get the benefits from meditation - you need to make it a daily practice. But start small. It’s unlikely you’re going to be able to commit to 20 minutes a day from the get go. 5 minutes is much more achievable. And if you don’t have 5 minutes, then do 1. In the beginning the length of time isn’t important. It’s just about actually doing it everyday. Once you’ve built the habit then you can work on increasing how long you spend in each session.
There’s plenty of apps out there to help you get started with meditation. Headspace and 10% Happier are both great paid options. One of the best free apps is Insight Timer. Just search for them in the app store.
Recruitment is a stressful and demanding job. So it’s hard to perform at your best if your brain is constantly flooded with stress hormones. But you don’t have to be a slave to your biology. You have the power to change it. Stress can be managed by removing its sources, watching your diet, exercising regularly, and making meditation a priority. No excuses. Just do it.