Stress: The Elephant in the Room
Welcome to part six of the Resilient Auditor where this time we are facing head on, the topic of stress. Over the first half of the programme we've laid solid foundations to develop your understanding of resilience; we know what it is and why it matters, and we've alluded to its antidotal properties in respect of stress. In this article, we are going to look more closely at stress in its own right and clarify how building resilience can help defend you against that dreaded elephant in the room!
Suffering in Silence
What does the word stress conjure up in your mind? Nervous breakdown, burnout or panic attack? Struggling to cope? Or just an adjective that describes, pretty much, each and every aspect of your life and work? Stress is one of those woolly words; we all use it, sometimes indiscriminately, often loosely and mostly inaccurately. The terminology is rife with misconceptions and in some environments carries unjust stigma.
So what do we actually mean by stress? Here is the official definition from the Health and Safety Executive: stress is 'the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them at work'. A useful start to describing stress but it does beg the question when does pressure become stress?
'To achieve great things, two things are needed: a plan and not quite enough time,' Leonard Bernstein
If you are an auditor, the chances are you'll observe wryly that pressure really is just the rhythm of life! Deadlines, budgets, dealing with difficult relationships, circumventing obstacles, you experience pressure in all aspects of your life and work most of the time. Pressure is a given and we do need a certain amount to motivate us, to feel challenged and to be successful. It provides an incentive to get the job done. Too little pressure and boredom takes hold; we’re unstimulated, task satisfaction declines and life lacks meaning. We are often at our best when working under pressure to achieve stretching results within a limited time frame.
Under Pressure or Over-stressed?
But there’s a fine balance between pressure and stress. When the pressure is no longer tolerable and/or manageable, you experience stress. Pressure will boost adrenaline, give you a buzz, optimize your creativity and maximize your performance. But if you tip over into stress and become anxious about your ability to cope, then you lose focus and concentration, you find it difficult to make decisions and your confidence dips. It is a myth that as pressure increases, performance goes up. It does; but only up to a point. Go past healthy tension and you’re heading towards a fatigue point, towards exhaustion, ill health and burnout. So while some pressure is good for us, sustained pressure, too much for too long, takes the body beyond the ability to function effectively. This is where the so called ‘fight or flight’ stress response is evoked and if you need a reminder of the effects on the body of stress, just check out The Resilient Auditor, Part 3: Let's Get Physical.
The Insidious Side of Stress
Take a look at the lists below. These are all potential signs and symptoms of stress:
- Psychological/emotional - feelings of failure, poor self esteem, low confidence, loss of decision making ability, depression, anxiety, worry, memory lapses, poor concentration, bad moods, tearfulness, loss of creativity, impatience.
- Behavioural - insomnia, social withdrawal, failure to meet deadlines, poor eating habits, excessive alcohol intake, aggression, passivity, becoming more accident prone, faulty time management.
- Physical - headache, neck and shoulder pain, swallowing and breathing difficulties, stomach upsets, muscle tension, back pain, ulcers, chest pains, high blood pressure, skin complaints.
Do you recognise any of your own personal signs and symptoms? I'm sure you do! But don't panic - there might be quite a few. What we are really looking for here are changes from YOUR norm; if you are usually an arch procrastinator then a loss of decision making ability won't necessarily be a helpful clue! One of the core resilience building techniques you can foster is to develop your self-awareness so that you begin to notice own unique signs and symptoms of stress and foresee your own tipping point from pressure into stress. If you think you may already be at that point try the stress test here to check out your stress quota and take remedial action.
Determining Your Tipping Point
You don't need to wait until you experience the signs and symptoms of stress though. You can be proactive by taking the time to raise your awareness of where past, current and future stress typically materializes.
Start by doing a brainstorm of all the stressors you can think of from every part of your life and work. Here's a checklist to get you started:
- At home - family, relationships, cohabitants, money, home maintenance, health, work-life balance.
- At work - changes to your role or to the business, lack of support, working relationships, inadequate experience or training, seasonal busy periods, bullying or harassment.
Be specific. If you have a current family stressor - who is it with and what's it about? Similarly, at work, if there's a particular assignment you anticipate will be stressful, identify it and determine precisely what about it is stressful. Use past experience to help you evaluate current and future stressors. Keeping track in this way will help you see the big picture of what you've got on and what is coming over the horizon. And don't forget the seemingly innocuous sources of stress. This is important as you'll know from experience that it can be only a very small, even trivial event that pushes you over the edge from pressure to stress.
The Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale assigns a high stress score to the universally major contributors to stress - bereavement, divorce, major illness, for example, but changes in work hours, an outstanding personal achievement and even Christmas - are all in there with a stress rating too!
Resilience: The Core Competency for Stress Management
You may have a lot on your list - the inevitable pressures of life and your professional career - but awareness will take you a long way to managing these demands as well as owning and controlling your mental health and your work life balance. Awareness needs to be partnered with action; put the two together and you have another powerful tool for resilience armoury.
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