December. What does it mean to you? Last minute Christmas shopping or expectations of highfalutin, domestic multi-tasking perhaps? Maybe a long overdue fiesta, mellow with eating, drinking and socialising? Or a frenzied push to get done what needs to be done, before the extended seasonal break heralds the January stress-fest?
Even if you are not an accountant or auditor grappling with a heavy concentration of December year ends, spending, entertaining and the prospect of a prolonged period of enforced leisure all contribute to our seasonal stress experience.
The resilient auditor programme has been building up to the challenge of the seasonal peak. Having defined and described resilience in the early part of our series, last month we looked at developing physical resilience to sustain us through the toughest times. This month we continue our resource-building theme as we look at the more esoteric area of mental resilience.
Stress? It's all in the mind
Sounds like something an unsympathetic and potentially discriminative, out of touch boss might say; but actually he or she might have a point. Go back to that list at the start of this piece. Your personal reaction to that array of pre-year end activities will vary as much as your individual DNA. Some of you will feel stressed merely by reading the list, others will express a deep sigh and declare onwards and upwards, while there will be some who merely shrug and wonder what all the fuss is about.
It all comes down to your individual perceptions: of stress, of stressors and, of your ability to cope. And that is where resilience comes in...
Beyond the cause and effect formula
It may sound flippant to describe stress as a perception. But think about it. Most people talk about stress in terms of an event or situation that causes stress. ('She really stresses me out'; 'Christmas is just so stressful'; 'missing that deadline will give me so much stress'). Of course there are some stressors that are universally traumatic but take any one of our seasonal examples above and our highly individual reaction will depend on a myriad of factors, including the interplay of the following:
- The 'stress quota' of the event itself, life changing events being the highest;
- Our particular 'back story', that is what else is going on for us at work and in our lives in general;
- Our perception of the event;
- Our perceived ability to cope.
The first two, by their nature tend to be more 'fixed', but with the second two there is more opportunity to flex our response.
Perceptions are not hard objective things; they are complex and multi-layered, built on a tangled web of personal beliefs, attitudes, assumptions and values. But if perception management can really make a difference to building resilience and protecting ourselves from stress, then their web is worth untangling.
'The way we see the problem is the problem', Stephen R. Covey
So, let's say you find yourself reacting strongly to the prospect of the busy times ahead. You might find your head full of anxious stress-chat ('how on earth am I going to get through the next few weeks') or just a litany of racing thoughts. Or you might experience a physical 'fight or flight' response (heart racing, sweating, feeling sick). As soon as you become aware of these tell tale signs, test your perception.
First, try a little evaluative assessment. Ask yourself: How important is this in the general scheme of things? What is the worst that can happen? What sort of energy and reaction does this event really warrant? What or who can help support me? Standing back, disassociating and making objective appraisal can really help sharpen perspective and move you into problem solving mode.
And to further test the accuracy and realism of your initial perception, consider 'reframing'. Cognitive reframing involves challenging our default approach with a view to discovering more helpful, alternative ways of tackling thoughts, problems or situations. Assertive self talk is called for with robust challenge: How else could I look at this? What more could this mean? Where's the upside here?
It's beginning to look a lot like resilience...
Not only do these techniques help in the moment, by re-evaluating a potential stressor, they also build up a durable resilience reserve. In fact merely believing that we have the resources and the ability to cope affects our attitude. We are then more likely to perceive a challenge rather than a threat - and we respond accordingly. A veritable virtuous circle ensues:
→ change perception → combat stress → build resilience →
Need I say more?
Wishing you a resilient season, festive, busy and bright...
Carol McLachlan FCA
Carol McLachlan, theaccountantscoach, is a qualified accountant, NLP Practitioner and professionally qualified coach. Her 18 year career at Ernst and Young in Audit and Assurance as a client handler and as Director of Resources has equipped her with a real understanding of the professional and personal issues that auditors face.
As theaccountantscoach she works in partnership with individuals and organisations - quite simply - helping them to be the very best they can be. She has helped accountants and auditors move from employment to entrepreneurial pursuits, prepare for their next promotion, become inspiring leaders and engaging presenters and manage their work life balance. Carol writes and lectures extensively on a wide range of professional development topics and is currently researching 'CPD in accountancy' for her master's degree.
For the agony aunt service on career issues, contact Carol here