- Chronic low-level stress or anxiety is believed to be underreported, as the effects of the pandemic continue to be felt.
- Addressing stress and anxiety early, before they wear the body down, can help you avoid burnout, where the recovery period is much harder and longer.
- Maintaining awareness, a positive inner state and wellness activities are key to breaking harmful habits and performing better at work and in life.
While the world may have calmed since the pandemic, it appears plenty of people are experiencing a lag effect with their mental health. Reports of burnout and high turnover continue to emerge.
New Zealand business coach Karen Ross, who has worked with accounting firms for more than 20 years, believes low-level chronic stress is the cause and at least half of the population is experiencing it.
“Chronic stress has become much more common. It’s something that builds up over time. I call it ‘stress creep’, where it happens incrementally. People become acclimatised to it and don’t realise just how wound up the nervous system has become because it starts to feel like normal,” she says.
Camille Woods CA lectures in accounting at the University of Technology Sydney and runs corporate yoga and meditation workshops through her business Monday Mind. She believes accountants at all levels are susceptible to stress and anxiety, and that admitting you are struggling is still seen as a sign of weakness rather than strength.
“There are a lot of things outside of your control in accounting. Deadlines need to be met and client workloads can be unreasonable. There’s no incentive to say that you feel that you have anxiety because people feel that they’ll be branded,” Woods says.
Acuity asked two business coaches to share their advice on tackling stress and anxiety, and returning to high performance and wellbeing levels.
1. Take control before burnout hits
While external factors cannot be changed, Ross says the individual is ultimately in control of their emotions and how they respond to events. As she likes to remind her clients, anxiety is a process and momentary.
“If you get that you don’t have anxiety, but that you’re doing it, then you’re instantly back in a bit more control because if you’re doing it, you could probably do something else instead,” she says.
The key, Ross says, is to intercept feelings of stress and anxiety early before the body gets worn down by the fight-or-flight response and burnout results.
“We seem to let things be quite bad before we do something about them, unfortunately,” she says. “Burnout is not quick to fix. It’s much easier to change patterns and habits early, and calm the nervous system down to get back into balance.
“If you feel yourself getting run down, or you’re not sleeping well, and you’re tired and grumpy, they are all signals that you’re not heading in a good direction.”
2. Becoming aware
Executive business coach Dr Jodie Lowinger uses her mind strength method to help executives and clients at The Anxiety Clinic to develop awareness about their behaviours, and the goals they want to aim for.
The first step is to become aware of the body’s fight-or-flight response and associated unhelpful behaviours such as perfectionism, lashing out, blaming and judging. A recent Harvard Business Review article lists eleven thought traps people with anxiety can commonly fall into.
“They are all examples of below-the-line actions or sub-optimised behaviours, which we do when we’re in fight or flight. Adrenaline is firing and oxytocin, which is a neurochemical for connection and collaboration is suppressed,” says Lowinger, who calls on 20 years of experience working with accounting and finance companies.
“Core to high performance and being an outstanding leader is your capacity to have emotional awareness. So, step one is basically awareness of what we’re doing when we are agitated or stressed and finding discomfort with uncertainty.
“We then build awareness around your goals, values and actions to move out of conflict and into building cohesion. For example, [you might start with] noticing how worry is getting in the way and then action-planning what’s within your control.”
3. Fostering positive intent
A positive mindset is key to unshackling negative thought patterns. Ross charges her clients with making their inner state their number-one priority for 40 days – ahead of clients, staff meetings and family. Forty days is the time it takes to break a deeply rooted behaviour.
When gearing up for stressful month-end or year-end periods, this inner state can become particularly helpful for setting a more relaxed and calm tone for your team or department.
“Stress is not a performance state. The sooner we can settle our system down, and feel relaxed and clear minded, that’s when we do a good job,” Ross says. “How a CFO or manager handles the situation will cascade down through the chain, and your team will be calmer and in a better place.”
Ross trained a client who heads up an accounting office in New Zealand to nurture this inner state. The client had hit a wall, and broken-down in front of his wife and children.
“When he embraced this idea of making his inner state the most important thing in the day, he stopped buying into the big drama of deadlines and wasn’t feeling the stress response play out,” she says. “Now, his health, sleep and energy are all much better. He is enjoying working again, and he is able to look more long term and think about where the business is going, instead of being buried in the day-to-day.”
“Stress is not a performance state. The sooner we can settle our system down, and feel relaxed and clear minded, that’s when we do a good job.”
4. Being well and performing amid uncertainty
One of Lowinger’s clients is a chief financial officer of a large organisation that has undergone significant change off the back of the pandemic. The CFO was finding himself burned out from disruption and the constant need to be flexible.
“We first worked on clarity of his professional and personal goals. I then taught him tools to stand-up to worry and fear of failure, to be assertive in communication, and to align his strategic goals,” says Lowinger.
“Then, we learned how to break-down perfectionism and overchecking, and build confidence and influence. I am equipping him to accept uncertainty and not butt heads with it.”
To help the client avoid falling back into old thought patterns that can activate stress or anxiety, Lowinger is working on his wellness as well as his performance.
“This includes building an action plan around exercise, nutrition and sleep, and engaging in relaxation strategies like mindfulness, breathing and gratitude,” she says.
“Wellness is not just about reducing absenteeism and turnover in order to boost profitability. It is front and centre to behaviours people engage in to heighten productivity and performance.”
Controlling anxiety triggers
One in four Australians will experience anxiety, and one in five Kiwis will be diagnosed with a mood or anxiety disorder. Here are some techniques experts use with their clients to calm the nervous system and promote awareness of unhelpful behaviours.
Breath work: This is the primary tool to move the body into a calm state. Breathe in deeply and slowly for 3–5 breaths, making the out-breath longer than the in-breath. The out-breath engages the parasympathetic nervous system (the foot brake on the fight-or-flight response).
Six minutes/60 minutes: If you’re overwhelmed by endless tasks, stop and breathe slowly for a few minutes and then ask yourself, what can I do now? What can I do in the next six minutes? The next 60 minutes? A short time window can simplify things, says business coach Karen Ross.
Boundary management: Get that diary in realistic shape and book in switch-off time from all screens. This resulted in one of Ross’s clients increasing productivity by 20%.
Understand your drivers: A person’s childhood conditioning or history could be behind underlying beliefs driving stress or anxiety. A performance coach or psychologist can help unpack these drivers and better identify them and how to respond. For example, Ross says more than half of her clients are people pleasers.
Eat and drink well: At stressful times like year-end, people can forget to maintain good hydration and eat healthy food. Planning ahead for meals can help you avoid food choices that hinder performance.
Yoga and meditation: Yoga and meditation ground the body, says accounting lecturer and yoga practitioner Camille Woods CA. Being part of a group can also foster positive feelings of connection.
Take small breaks: Rather than working hard all day and then doing exercise at the end of it, Woods suggests taking mini breaks throughout the day to disengage the fight-or-flight response.
Clinical psychologist Dr Jodie Lowinger says burnout is driven by three factors:
1. Work-life balance: An imbalance in one or the other can cause ongoing upheaval
2. Mindset: Worry over uncertainty can trigger the fight-or-flight response, and burn energy and serotonin reserves
3. Context: When the environment is more uncertain, it can exacerbate feelings of being out of control and result in greater anxiety and stress.