By Dr Nerina Ramlakhan
Feeling pressure and anxiety at work can happen to everyone, and this is completely normal from time to time. After months of upheaval and huge changes to our working (and personal) lives due to the pandemic, returning to the workplace might be a difficult transition for some, especially for introverts who have thrived at home. A year is a long time and what started off as a temporary fix has now turned into an established way of living and working. For many people, their homes have become their sanctuary.
During uncertain and worrying times, the nervous system takes the hit, and we end up running in survival mode fuelled by anxiety, fear, adrenaline and cortisol. We could see a rise in burnout and mental health problems, accelerated by the ingrained working from home routines and anxiety around being back in the physical workplace interacting with people in real life again.
Despite the changes to our working patterns, there still seems to be no escaping the ‘always on’ culture that pervades our society. In fact, this has likely become worse with more of us working from home and the boundaries between work and home life growing increasingly blurred.
Yet, even before coronavirus and social distancing, our love affair with technology and responding reactively to 24/7 demand has played a big role in depleting our mental and physical health – including the immune system. Working patterns have grown to be even more linear (go, go, go and then stop), so the need to be mindful of our own wellbeing is increasingly important if we are to avoid a burnout epidemic further down the line.
Burnout and overwhelm have key characteristics that include: racing thoughts, a feeling of dread in the pit of your stomach, breathlessness, tight or clenched jaw, a racing mind, unable to slow down, feeling numb, working longer hours but less productively, becoming increasingly impatient and irritable. If you notice any of these signs or are experiencing stress and anxiety on a daily basis, there are things you can do to manage the pressure before it becomes a bigger problem.
First things first, try to begin your day on the right note. How do you normally start your day? Do you reach for your phone first thing? Do you straightaway throw your attention into what’s out there, your inbox, the news, the social media buzz? Try doing it differently – when you become aware that you’re awake, even before you open your eyes, take your own pulse check. Breathe in, breathe out. Ask yourself ‘How am I feeling right now?’ Then move outwards into your day from this place. This is about cultivating a regular practice of self-awareness, which can have remarkable effects on your mental wellbeing.
When feeling stressed or anxious, it can be tempting to prop up your energy levels with stimulants like coffee, but caffeine mimics the effect of adrenaline. It keeps you wired and stuck in survival mode, which switches off the parasympathetic nervous system and sleep system, heightening anxiety. Aim to consume less than 300mg of caffeine per day and avoid caffeine first thing until you’ve eaten.
Aim to eat breakfast within 30 minutes of rising, especially if you wake up with anxiety. This sets up your blood-sugar levels on a healthy path and sends a message of security to your nervous system. Then eat little and often throughout the day – particularly if you are going to be working long hours. Keep healthy snacks – such as nuts, fruit, and oatcakes – with you and avoid going for the quick fixes such as caffeine or sweets. Also, try to drink at least 2 litres of water per day.
The most important tip for everyone – particularly if you work in a high-stress role or company culture – is to factor rest periods into your day. In doing this, you attune yourself to the natural rhythm of your physiological cycles, which are oscillatory not linear, and improve your natural energy and concentration levels.
Every 60-90 minutes, in line with our body’s natural circadian rhythms, aim for recovery for around 5-10 minutes. Do something different during this time to mentally switch channels. Move away from your desk and screen and try one or two of the following: drink a glass of water; eat something healthy; stretch out your neck and shoulders; take a few conscious deep in-breaths into your belly; go for a short walk; gaze out into nature. These strategies help us feel more energised throughout the day and encourage our bodies to sleep better at night.
A good night’s sleep is so vital to maintaining productivity. Our sleep before midnight is the most restorative phase of sleep, so set a goal to get to bed before 10pm at least 3-4 nights a week in order to get really deep, nourishing slumber that sets up our energy levels for a happy and productive day.
Late bedtimes are often related to technology and social media, with people staying up absorbed by the internet, the television or work. It’s vital to set healthy boundaries with technology and work time. The blue light from devices also impacts the sleep cycle. Ideally, your phone should not be the last or first thing you look at before your turn your light out or first thing when you wake up.
With big changes in our lives there will always be a level of anxiety and in such uncertain times it is only natural to be concerned about adapting to constant upheaval. But if you are at the point that your anxiety is becoming overwhelming and starting to impact your daily routine, speak to someone at work or a GP about additional support that could be offered rather than try to manage the issue alone.
Maybe we won’t go back to the ‘old days’ of the 9 to 5 in the office but whatever happens, we do need to start building more rest into our days and prioritise our wellbeing. Remember to prioritise your feelings and talk them through and allow yourself the time and space to adapt. Now more than ever, we all need to find new ways of working and being in the world.
About the author
Dr Nerina Ramlakhan is a renowned physiologist and sleep expert and regularly hosts sleep programmes and workshops. She is the bestselling author of several books about sleep, including The Little Book of Sleep: The Art of Natural Sleep (Gaia, 2018). Her TEDx Talk ‘Come to Work and Rest’ can be accessed at www.drnerina.com