Here is the full transcript of leadership coach Dr Angela Armstrong’s TEDx Talk: How to Solve the Stress Epidemic at TEDxLeamingtonSpa conference.
Listen to the MP3 Audio: How to Solve the Stress Epidemic by Dr Angela Armstrong at TEDxLeamingtonSpa
Dr Angela Armstrong – Leadership coach
Seven years ago, I thought I was going to die. I didn’t!
Back then, I worked in a global consulting firm, leading change programs. Now, I’m an independent leadership development consultant.
Seven years ago, I learned the hard way that my body is not designed to absorb the level of stress I was subjecting it to. And I learned some lessons about thriving and surviving in corporate life, lessons I believe can literally save lives.
I’m normally a very private person. Being vulnerable on a public stage is a massive stretch for me, but the potential to save lives is a compelling reason to be here.
My hope for today is that, by sharing my story and a simple three-part model, you will realize that the key to the stress epidemic is in your daily habits. And you will commit to making small daily changes that will improve the quality of life for you, for business, and for society.
You may think that solution sounds too simple. It is simple, and simple works.
Workplace stress has reached epidemic proportions. Imagine the sound and energy of a full-capacity crowd at Wembley Stadium cheering, and now imagine that same crowd observing a minute’s silence on Remembrance Sunday. At any one point in the UK, 40,000 voices are not heard in the workplace because they are on long-term stress leave, due to workplace stress.
The total number of working days lost due to stress in the UK last year is the equivalent of 50,000 people taking one year off work. It is costing UK businesses billions. The solution, I believe, is to act on three parts of the stress ecosystem: banter, beliefs, and body.
Banter is the everyday conversations you hear in the workplace. You’ve probably heard the expression “work hard, play hard.” At the consulting firm, my peers were well-educated and ambitious, and we thrived on meeting deadlines. A 60-hour workweek was normal, and at weekends, I had a packed social calendar.
After the global financial crisis, the banter changed to “work harder and stay later.” That’s when I became a member of stress club, and it seems the first rule of stress club is you must talk about stress club. You know how it goes: everyone wearing stress, like a badge of honor, competing for who has the most stress. “Oh, well, I worked 80 hours last week.” “You think that’s bad? I’ve got to give a presentation to the board this afternoon, and I only just found out.” “It’s OK for you! I’m trying to raise a family as well.” And so, it goes on.
Have you got your badge? Banter is important because your conversations are contagious, and so are the moods associated with them. When you talk about being overworked, stressed, and tired, you create an atmosphere of stress. You’re literally causing more stress just by talking about it. And pretty soon, the banter that you hear every day in the office becomes the voice in your head.
And if you’re thinking, “Voice? What voice?,” That’s the voice.
Maybe you’ve had thoughts like I did: “As long as I hold it all together, I will be fine.” “I can’t stop. People are relying on me, at home and in the office.” “I don’t have time to rest and recover.” And your beliefs are important because your brain is nature’s great pharmacy.
Whenever you believe you’re stressed, you trigger a biological survival response, and you dump stress hormones into your body. Primed with cortisol and adrenaline, you are ready to fight a predator or run to safety, and as soon as the threat has passed, your body initiates the rest and digest cycle, it eliminates the stress hormones, and reactivates your digestive system, your immune system, your sex drive.
The trouble is, for every hour that we put stress hormones into our body, it takes several hours to eliminate them, and a lot of people are running a backlog. The long-term consequences of that buildup of stress can be really significant.
My friend, Sam, a fit and healthy male in his 30s, had a cardiac arrest from the stress. He died at his desk. And still, I thought: “It can’t happen to me.”
Seven years ago, at 5 o’clock, one cold Monday morning, I was gripping the bathroom sink as excruciating pain ripped through my chest. And I remember thinking: “No! I’m only 38. I can’t die yet!” And that’s all I remember of that day.
I ended up taking three months off work. I had burned out. I suffered a physical and mental collapse due to workplace stress. I didn’t recognize myself. Overnight, I had gone from being a top performer to being afraid to walk to the corner shop. Hero to zero. Although I had friends who came and walked me most days, those months were the loneliest I’ve ever known.
So, what are the solutions? You decide to leave behind the banter and the beliefs of stress club, and you drag your weary body across the road to join resilience club.
Resilience is the ability to take the changes and challenges of life in your stride and keep walking forward. And the benefits reach far beyond the workplace, into your personal relationships, and your parenting. Now, that is a ripple effect worth striving for.
During my time coming back from burnout, I couldn’t hold a conversation, and it took me two months to be able to drive a car. I had to build my daily habits from the ground up. Imagine having to follow a checklist to make sure that you got showered, you got dressed, and you remember to eat something.
We all have a basic understanding of how our bodies generate energy: nutrition, exercise, hydration, and rest, but it’s not enough to know what to do. We must also do what we know. The key to resilience is in your daily habits. I certainly learned that burnout could happen to me.
I also found out who my true friends were. And the most important lesson I learned: stress is a choice. Stress is your choice. The first time I heard that, I was like, “Are kidding me? It’s all their fault!” But a deeper part of me realized that that new belief was the only way I was going to survive re-entry to the workplace. You can choose to blame and complain, or you can decide to take action. Taking action is a choice. Taking action is your choice.
On my road back from burnout, I had to face the very uncomfortable truth that I had become a stress junkie. It was not enough to focus on my own stress. No, I wanted a piece of everyone else’s too.
Do you worry about things that are outside your control? I had to learn to get very clear about exactly what was within my control and deliver that with passion. I had to physically and mentally let go of everything else. Maybe you need people’s approval. I had to learn to set boundaries, and say no occasionally, because I know that, when I take care of my resilience, I have more to offer others.
Despite all that I had learned and all that I had been through, when I returned to the workplace, within one week, I had gone back to my old habits. Fortunately, I paid attention, I looked out for my early warning signs, and I recommitted to my new habits. At first, it took discipline to take 20-minute lunch breaks in the fresh air when everyone else was eating at their desk, but I knew that I concentrated better in the afternoon when I did. And so, I stuck with it, and pretty soon, I had company, because the first rule of resilience club is you must talk about resilience club.
How would it be if, instead of “work hard, play hard,” you chose “work hard, play hard, and rest hard”? How would it be if you shared that your concentration was really sharp because you had a good night’s sleep, or that the stress of yesterday was left in the gym? We can all change the conversation, one conversation at a time.
As for my story, I trained as a coach and remained in corporate for further three years before starting my own business. As a coach, it is my job to encourage people into their stretch zone, so that they can achieve their full potential. I consider it a duty of care, therefore, to make sure that they also have the resilience habits to support that ambition.
For the last four years, I’ve been going into companies, training them to be more resilient, and I’ll continue to do that as long as there’s a need. But what compels me to be on a public stage today is that we are about to have a paradigm shift in the way that we work, and if stress club goes underground, the threat of a burnout epidemic is very real.
The millennial generations are now in management positions. They grew up in a digital world. They expect to be able to contribute their talents from anywhere. Within the next three years, over half of the UK full-time population will be working remotely, at least half of the time. It is easy to hide how stressed you are in a virtual environment, and you won’t find it so easy to look out for each other.
The key to resilience is in your daily habits. You can change the banter, one conversation at a time. You can choose to believe that stress is a choice, and focus only on what matters most. You can pay attention to what your body is telling you, and decide to take actions to thrive.
What small daily habits will you take to ensure that your banter, beliefs, and body are on the road to resilience?