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Stress awareness doesn't start and end in April

Should we be alarmed that the World Health Organisation has classified stress as the “health epidemic of the 21st century”? Biologically speaking, acute stress can be a motivator and performance enhancer, and is essential to our survival by triggering the “fight-or-flight” mechanism to help us respond to danger. But our bodies can’t tell the difference between an existential threat and non life-threatening stressors. While stress itself is not an illness, left unchecked, it can become chronic and make us ill – affecting our body as well as our thoughts, feelings and behaviour.

In today’s time-poor culture, we often struggle to carve out space in our daily lives for endorphin-boosting exercise, connecting with friends and family, or recharging our batteries. It’s easy to compound the problem with unhealthy coping mechanisms: relying on quick fixes like alcohol, caffeine and comfort food, or “zoning out” by binge-watching box-sets at the expense of restorative sleep. The worst thing about chronic stress is that we can become habituated to it, ignoring the signs and symptoms and feeling increasingly helpless and hopeless.  

The individual and cumulative impact of work-related stress

A large proportion of our waking hours are spent at work, and our experience in the workplace is a key determinant of our overall wellbeing. Work-related stress costs global society untold billions in direct and indirect costs annually, not to mention the human price paid by employees and their families.

Work-related stress occurs when an employee’s demands at work exceed their ability to cope, but that doesn’t necessarily mean long hours or excessive workloads. Other stressors can include too few opportunities for advancement, uninteresting work, not having enough control over job-related decisions, a toxic organisational culture, bad management practices, poor working relationships, and the physical work environment itself.

As well as physical and psychological symptoms, stress may manifest itself behaviourally in increased absenteeism, reduced interest and initiative, diminished work performance, relationship problems and mood swings. Yet too many companies still create a culture of “busyness” and burn-out, particularly where putting in long hours is seen as a prerequisite to promotion.

Most of us have heard of presenteeism – people coming into work when they are ill. But "leavism" is an equally pernicious and fast-growing workplace trend, where employees work whilst on holiday or out of hours, fail to take their full annual leave entitlement, or use their leave instead of taking sick days when they are too unwell to go to work.

The high-pressure nature of the events industry

Any job can have stressful moments, even if we love what we do, but event management is consistently ranked as one of the most stressful industries to work in, behind the military and emergency services. Event managers have to plan for every eventuality and adapt to the unforeseeable, constantly multi-tasking to ensure everything goes without a hitch. According to a survey by Eventwell, the industry’s first and only charitable social enterprise dedicated to health and wellbeing, one-third of event professionals will experience a mental health episode during their career, compared to the national average of one in four people. Three-quarters of event professionals say their workload and responsibilities had elevated their stress levels over the past year.

It’s our job to take the strain from our clients, but there’s a fine line between the adrenaline rush of a short-term, high-pressure situation and the sustained elevation in cortisol levels that results from never properly switching off. Frequent travel, irregular working hours and being always available at the end of phone and email can have a detrimental impact on wellbeing, as can skipping meals or snacking on unhealthy foods, and letting exercise or personal interests slide. It’s absolutely vital that the industry as a whole, and we as employers, support event professionals’ ability to balance home and work life, and build their personal wellbeing needs into their working day.

What can businesses do to combat work-related stress?

Ideally, employees should be feel comfortable talking openly with their supervisor or manager to flag up any sources of antagonism, make reasonable adjustments, get help to improve skills such as time management, or explore ways to enrich their job or lighten their load. But someone who is already chronically stressed may not have the clarity or courage to make the first move, and too many organisations are still taking a reactive or ad hoc approach to employee wellbeing. Sometimes, the first indication that an employee is stressed or anxious is when they are signed off by their GP, or during an exit interview, by which time it’s too late for any meaningful intervention.

Wellbeing is an ongoing commitment, not a one-off initiative or occasional offer of free fruit and yoga classes. That’s why organisations need to tackle work-related stress through a wider, joined-up employee wellbeing strategy. With wellbeing encompassing anything and everything from developing an open and supportive culture, to staff having a good relationship with their manager and colleagues, to a comprehensive benefits package and flexible working practices, one size doesn’t fit all and it takes a careful consideration to get it right.

In part two of this blog, we’ll be exploring our own wellbeing strategy here at TTA, and the steps we’re taking to evolve our culture, communications, policies and practices to help our people flourish inside the working environment in this high-pressure industry.

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