Stress: It's not a competition!

Ruth Warden

I have a regular response when I meet someone I haven’t seen for a while – when they ask “How are you?  “How are things?” I always say, “busy”. I am busy, but why on earth do I always choose to make that the first point?

A couple of weeks ago a colleague and I had gone through this little ritual and established that we were both busy, only then did we go on to talk about how that was affecting us and what it actually meant. We realised that we were both engaging unwittingly in some sort of unwritten competition to be the busiest, manage the greatest workload, manage on the least amount of sleep – keep on no matter what and almost wear it as a badge of honour – “I’m the busiest and the most stressed” – “No I’m the busiest and I’m even more stressed than you!!”

If I am really stressed, then I must be really busy, and therefore I am more important and integral to the team. If I am stressed, then that must mean I am important and valuable. Do you see how easy it is to think of stress as a measure of how important we are? And should we really measure how valued we are by our business and our stress? 

Does being busy make us feel important and wanted?  Is this what we value? Has stress become a badge of honour?  There is no denying that many of us are under a lot of pressure and the workload is high, but if we view stress as a measure of our worth, it stops us doing something about it and just perpetuates the whole problem.

Stress isn’t good, particularly over a long period of time. Being busy isn’t the same as being productive. I can be busy and actually achieve nothing, so why make this the key thing I use to describe the way I am. I know that I need sleep, without it I struggle to function. When my children were small and sleep deprivation came as part of the package, it was hard and I’m sure that I wasn’t as productive as I could have been – so I know that surviving on small amounts of sleep isn’t good for me. I also know that I need time to reflect and stop, take a break – I can run out of steam before the end of the week if I haven’t looked after myself and have been too “busy”.

So what could I say next time someone asks how things are? I could say “interesting”, because they are, I’m never bored. I could say “challenging”, there are challenges, issues to solve, but that is good. If it feels tough I could acknowledge that. All of these are much more positive responses and reflect how I feel, the impact the work is having on me rather than the volume of work I am doing.  

The first step to do something about stress is being able to recognise that it as bad.

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