Healthy Mind

Could Your Work Be Making You Ill

You’ve been inundated with calls, had to attend two unexpected meetings and been asked to carry out a number of tasks you weren’t expecting to tackle that day. Pretty much your entire to-do list has gone un-ticked and so you work late for an extra half hour or so to catch up. You even have a sneaky check of your emails when you get home, just to make sure you’re up to date for the morning. We’ve all been there, but if that late clock-off or evening email is becoming a regular occurrence, it’s time to have a serious think about the impact it could be having on your health and happiness.

A recent study published in The Lancet medical journal shows that working 55 hours or more per week increases your likelihood of suffering from a stroke or heart disease by a third. While the reasons for this cannot yet be explained, it’s believed to be due to extra stress from the long hours. Research in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology found that those who answer emails outside of working hours are also increasing their cortisol levels, putting them at risk of high levels of anxiety which can lead to insomnia, fatigue, headaches and stomach problems.
And it’s not just our physical health that our office lives can affect – it’s our mindset too. The Journal of Applied Psychology reported that rudeness can have a contagious effect, showing that if a colleague is unpleasant to you then you’re more likely to consequently be unpleasant towards someone else.
We spoke to life coach and emotional health expert Becki Houlston (beckihoulston.com) about maintaining an upbeat attitude…
So, how can you tell if your work is affecting your health? First, you need to work out whether what you’re feeling is short term pressure or long term stress, says Becki. “Whilst you can still remain resourceful under pressure, stress shuts down the pre-frontal cortex in your brain and impairs your ability to make decisions, rationalise and spot errors. The main difference is that stress has a physiological impact.” Difficulties that we face at work can also awaken other worrisome things in our lives. “The root cause of most stress is never what the person thinks it is,” explains Becki. “For example, a critical boss can arouse a dormant fear of failure, self-neglect, or fear of loss.” For women in particular, people-pleasing is a huge problem. “These fears create over-reactive behaviours, such as not letting go of tasks and projects and not delegating or asking others for help. Feeling like you’re not making a difference at work can also be a contributor.”
It’s not just at your desk that you can make your working day less overwhelming. There are plenty of things you can get into the habit of doing before and after the 9-5 day that can calm you, too. Becki suggests exercise as one of the greatest ways to relieve stress from both the mind and the body. Why not try cycling to and from work instead of commuting, or sign up to a regular gym class to help you unwind during the week? Listening to soothing music or talking about your worries with a friend who’s a good listener will also do the trick, but make sure you’re talking with the view to do something positive about the situation rather than just moaning. In times of difficulty, meditation is excellent for massaging the mind, says Becki, and learn to relax rather than just distracting yourself. Most importantly, spend time on self care – make sure you’re getting enough sleep and eating the right foods to put you in a positive frame of mind.

How to stay positive in a toxic environment:

1. Focus on what you want, not what you don’t want.
2. Avoid all unconstructive moaning and negative conversations.
3. Know when to leave. When an environment is completely at odds with your values, look for a new one. The longer you stay, the more you will need to recover from it, and this will impact your selfconfidence to find somewhere you will be happy.
4. Be honest – understand what the problem really is. For example, is it a training, structural or personal issue? Then create lots of options for solving the issue and you can choose how to respond to the situation.

How to approach what feels like an overwhelming workload:

1. Create three lanes on a page, a fast lane, medium, and slow lane. Assign each task to a lane to help your mind prioritise what to focus on.
2. Talk to yourself encouragingly about what you need to get done. ‘I’m never going to get this done,’ will start panic in your nervous system whereas ‘I’m going to do the best I can,’ creates a much more resourceful reaction. Be your own best leader.
3. Ask for help and let go of anything that isn’t necessary in the short term. Asking for help shows great selfconfidence when you do it before you are in pieces.

Superfoods for stress relief

1. Rich in antioxidants, blueberries are a high-fibre, low-calorie snack option that are full of stress-fighting vitamin C.
2. Seeds such as sunflower and pumpkin are great sources of magnesium, which has been shown to help alleviate depression and fatigue.
3. Salmon is full of omega 3 fatty acids, which have anti-inflammatory properties said to help against the negative effects of stress hormones.
4. Research has found that a bite of dark chocolate may reduce your cortisol (stress hormone) levels and the antioxidants it contains can lower blood pressure.
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