I always thought that overworking was a modern-day phenomenon, but I came across a description the other day of 16th century farm workers feeling mentally ill and having trouble sleeping as a result of the pressure from their 'management'. It's clear to me that it is in the nature of all organised work for pressure to become a problem for those of us juggling what feels like more than the working day allows. So, given that it has always been the case that we are working at capacity and that we're all of us prone to taking on the stresses associated with feeling overwhelmed, what can we do to change our mindset? I suppose that is where a simple choice is available.

On the one hand we could say that none of it really matters…I mean, hey,we'll be dead someday!  But this glib view is perhaps less useful than taking a good look at our thinking habits. In many of my workshops recently the conversation in the room between the participants has led to the conclusion that the deep frustration to do with the pressures and constraints coming at them from their management, must not be dignified by a willingness to let it undermine what matters most. Our mood... and our peer group. 

I am always keen to let this conversation develop in my sessions. The participants really appreciate it and tend to come up with their own solutions to their own problems way more effectively than anyone could on their behalf.  Peers matter a lot.  We most of us want to be part of a team, to not let our colleagues down and we benefit from genuinely liking those we work alongside. This is especially the case in heavy industry where a band-of-brothers mindset prevails.  Often the thing that prevents a complete caving-in from the pressure of rules, regulations, paperwork etc is the ‘banter’ between the people on the front line.  The solution to many problems can be to simply change the mood we are in; our peers are vital in that regard.  Even a stupid joke or a raised eye brow can pick us up and ultimately do more to support the bottom line than a new procedure ever could.

Overworked

In the name of improvement, businesses often try to change things that didn’t need to be changed, to apply new procedures to comply with changes in legislation.  The most common response I have encountered to this is one of healthy cynicism - it is in cultures where repeated change is taking place that I see the workforce bonded by cynicism.  In these environments human connection becomes king, the banter, the trust, the simple sanity provided by colleagues with an eye for what matters versus what is just noise. It is the noise that depresses us, and triggers unhelpful responses while it is the human element that talks us back off the ledge. Micro-interactions are what makes the good culture and the mutually beneficial team mindset.  The team mindset is what makes the company great.

But what if we have no colleagues?  Lone workers have a slightly different challenge and need to become a support network of their own. It is essential for loan workers to take time out to do things for themselves wherever possible, to be trusted to do so responsibly, to avoid the anxiety associated with the pressure being all on one pair of shoulders. Lone workers need to keep their spirits up too, to stop themselves succumbing to self-imposed stress.

As well as our feelings, our inner narrative, we have constant media to field.  This technological bombardment produces the same levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) as would have been present in our ancestors when their lives were under threat from wild animals! The amygdala keeps on producing this hormone response to what has become constant - we will never be able to fully relax unless we can train our minds to recognise that, in the modern world, pressure IS the wild animal.  A little bit can be useful…but too much can be fatal.

Given that everybody is feeling the intense pressure, isn't it time to look at our workload through different eyes?  The discussions in the Acting Up sessions have recently been turning to the sentiment of the serenity prayer. 

We conclude that we need the serenity to see what we can't change and the courage to change what we can and the wisdom to recognise the difference. Separating out the things we can't change from the things that we can do something about, pacing our work, ensuring we come to it fresh and rested, checking the inner voice that panders to the pressure, swapping it instead for the supportive wise voice that allows us the time we need to feel sane again; these are some things we can do somethings about.

One thing is for certain, the solution is a human one and it’s all in our heads.  Our headspace is the only thing we can really control in life. We will never manage to clear our in-box or stop the endless claim on our time, the external elements that claim us all too often, but internally we have a choice to make space for the spirit-lifting gift of humour and the vital humanness of peer-to-peer connection…and we can listen to the sound of life going on around us, birds, music, laughter and a well observed gag.  That is a great place to make radical change in the world and take back our lives.

Emma Currie