Stepping out of the rat race

A word that comprises only four letters, yet it is such an important part of our life: work. During the week, we spend a great deal of our waking hours at work, and even when we are not working we are often thinking about work stuff or have conversations about it. You might therefore not find it surprising that many participants in our mindfulness courses name work-related activities as a significant source of stress.

Whether it is long hours, a lack of support, frustrating meetings or difficult interactions with co-workers, there are numerous aspects that can cause stress. Some of these challenges have exacerbated in the past months, with increasing job insecurity or even the loss of income for some. For others, the current crisis means juggling working from home while simultaneously taking care of kids and thus continuous multitasking. As many of us are now often home-officing, this also means that the lines between private and professional spheres have become blurred, making it even more difficult to see the end of it all.

Work stress follows us home

Stress is in essence an automatic survival response of the body and is necessary to have appropriate reactions in situations of danger. However, when stress persists and we stay in this "survival mode" for longer than needed, it can for instance weaken our immune system and lead to unhelpful coping mechanisms. Eventually, this chronic stress can take a real toll on your mental and physical wellbeing.

Picture this situation: You have an important meeting coming up tomorrow. You are worried about how it'll go, and while lying in bed at night, countless thoughts are racing through your head, speeding round and round like Formula 1 cars. "Should I have prepared better? Is the presentation good enough? What if people will disagree with me?" All this worrying naturally comes at a cost and without you noticing, resources are withdrawn from your energy account. The day of the meeting, while you are preparing breakfast, you do so quite mechanically as in your mind you are going through the slides again. Perhaps there is some tension in your neck that starts building. You cannot really enjoy your breakfast and a knot is developing in your stomach. Eventually, the meeting goes well, people were satisfied with your plan and you were able to answer most questions – but you feel quite exhausted. So all this worrying was actually for nothing. Does this sound familiar?

We human beings have this amazing faculty to anticipate events and to think about the future. Marvellous, isn't it? Unfortunately, our mind does not make a distinction between a perceived or a real threat. Whether there is an aggressive dog running towards you or whether it is a presentation, the mind picks up these alert signs and sends signals to the body so that it can fight or flee. What happens when you stay in this "high-alert" mode longer than is needed? The meeting is over, but perhaps you are already thinking about the report you need to hand in by the end of the week. "I have so much to do, when will I have time to write it? And what if I cannot make the deadline?" The race cars are back, with a full tank, ready to speed through your head and body.

Of course certain situations at work, whether it be unrealistic demands or toxic relationships, need to be addressed and require action. Yet, there are also resources, such as mindfulness, that we can access to make sure we recharge our batteries and do not put all our fuel into the race cars. Let's discuss some practical and simple steps you can take to help increase your focus and wellbeing at work:

Recognising what drains your energy

"My job is really stressful". If every or most aspects of your job leave you feeling exhausted, then you might want to consider a change. Yet, it can be interesting to look at what exactly has a negative impact on your energy levels. Perhaps it is only certain tasks or particular periods, or only some people you interact with? Breaking it down into more concrete and specific chunks, can help you discover which aspects are difficult or draining and if on the other hand there are other parts that you actually enjoy. You might want to take a piece of paper and look at your typical work day. List all the activities you do on an average working day (e.g. reading emails, meetings with co-workers, call customers, document information, lunch break....). You can mark for each activity whether you consider it to be mostly depleting (-) or on the other hand nourishing (+). Perhaps certain activities can be both, depending on the circumstances. Have a good look at your list, what are your main take-aways and conclusions? Maybe you can even share your insights and discuss it with someone you trust at work or a friend/family member.

Mindful reminder to stop

Working is basically a (sometimes endless) list of different tasks and to-dos. Without always noticing it, we are driven to complete many assignments. This "doing mode" helps us accomplish these tasks. Whereas this mindset of "getting things done" is often beneficial, it can also turn into a pitfall if you are constantly running from one task or to-do to the next. It is often only when things quieten down a little that you come to realise how tired you really are. And can you blame yourself? Of course it is exhausting to be constantly "running", constantly working – and when you are not working, does your mind really take a break? It can be a good idea to plan those break moments in advance, even if it is just five to ten minutes, putting them in your agenda and scheduling them in to make sure you honour them. Technology can be your friend here, having a "it's break time" notification pop up on your phone or desktop that will remind you to check in with yourself and take just a couple of moments of rest before continuing. Perhaps you can even find an ally, someone you can take a break with, a colleague or a friend, maybe even chatting about something unrelated to work?

Tuning in and taking a breathing space

It is important that you recognise your stress signals and that you check in with yourself to notice what you actually need in a particular moment. A very practical mindfulness tool is the 3-minute breathing space. It consists of three simple steps, which you can turn into a longer meditation or even shorten to just a couple of moments. You can simply do it at your desk, sitting, standing or lying down. It can be a vital practice to allow you to tune in with yourself, noticing how things really are for you at that moment and connecting with your breath and body. It is not about taking a break from reality, but actually reengaging with it in a different way. It is about becoming aware of what is there for you to be able to make a helpful choice, whether that is continue working, going for a walk or finishing work early...

It is so easy to get sucked into the rat race. Before you know it, you feel like you are running like a little hamster in its wheel. You keep running, and the wheel keeps turning. Yet, we can also choose to stop from time to time making the wheel slow down too...

Here you can find a short guided breathing space meditation. It can be useful to practice regularly to notice early on when stress is on the verge of taking over. You can for example use it at the start of your work day, when you feel that it is going to be a long race, or at any time when you notice that your fuel tank is almost empty.