Mental health issues have been knocking at the door for a while, but for years, most organisations have preferred to pay little heed to them—until the pandemic upended our lives and forced them to meet needs relating to employees’ mental well-being head-on.
This might not be an opinion people want to hear but most of the advice to deal with work stress is dominated by lazy drivel centred on the need to take life easy and not worry too much. This doesn’t solve the problem nor does it result in mitigation. While many might need professional help and intervention, there are ways and means to deal with, and maybe even prevent, work-related anxiety and stress.
Each individual has different triggers and tolerance limits for anxiety and stress. If you know what your triggers are, you can be better prepared and take corrective steps before the event. For instance, someone might feel anxious before a review meeting, while another individual may feel worried whenever she has to have a crucial conversation like providing unpleasant feedback to a high-performing and ambitious team member. Some others may experience an existential threat when they get some hard feedback from their manager. You will never enjoy doing what you deeply dislike, but preparation, practice and rational thinking can help lower your anxiety levels.
Some situations are beyond your control, but how you respond is largely in your control. Most people worry about what’s not in their control and do not spend enough time fine-tuning their response. Author Stephen Covey calls it “the circle of influence” and emphasises the importance of staying focused on dealing with and responding thoughtfully to events in your circle of influence. The circle of influence is essentially things that one can do something about, and as one acts to make positive changes to things within one’s control, one’s circle of influence increases over time. This may come across as easier said than done, but this is a habit that can be developed if one makes the effort. If successful, it results in a strange calmness of the mind and a sense of equanimity in dealing with both the joys as well as the pains of life.
The positive side of any adversity is that it provides an opportunity to examine your priorities in life and discover your true self. This is close to impossible in normal times when everything is going right. So, when adversity strikes, remember to quickly put on a thinking cap. Instead of feeling anxiety and stress, you will feel an opportunity to build resilience.
I’ve found that the best way to deal with anxiety and stress is before it hits you. Good habits are built in good times, not bad. The trouble is that most people start thinking about developing good habits after adversity strikes—after the first heart attack, after the first job loss, or after a breakup. Good habits can be as simple as stable sleep patterns, having a good circle of friends with whom you can unburden and take off all your masks, regular exercise and relaxation (through meditation, reading good books, listening to soothing music).
Good habits can also be about making the right strategic choices in your life—like choice of job, life partner and friends. I have always said that a few strategic choices can make or break a company and it is equally true for individuals. With the wrong strategic choices (made often under societal pressure and the compelling need to conform and appear successful), anxiety and stress are inevitable and you can do little to deal with them.
Lord Buddha was born as Prince Siddhartha and had access to every physical comfort. Yet anxiety and stress haunted him every step of his life. He eventually renounced everything—kingdom, parents, wife and newborn child—and went in search of answers to the questions of life. After subjecting himself to extreme deprivation, he realised the futility of this approach and soon discovered a profound truth: Neither self-indulgence nor self-deprivation is an answer. He propounded the now famous “middle path”. The middle path is not a compromise as one might conclude. It is a negation of “extremes” and somewhat akin to Aristotle’s idea of the “golden mean”, whereby either extreme is a vice. The mother of all the golden means is the fine balance between “dreaming” and “being grounded”. Dreaming creates the right imbalance and disequilibrium essential for growth. On the other hand, being grounded is realising that endless quests can be dangerously destabilising; and an imperfect fit is better than an eternal search for the perfect fit.
In short, good mental health is not about headline-seeking actions like four-day work weeks. It is about what you do with your life during the week that makes the difference.
T.N. Hari is an author, angel investor, and adviser to several venture capital firms and startups. His most recent book is From Pony To Unicorn: Scaling A Start-Up Sustainably.