Coping with stress in the workplace

by Ally Kelly24 Aug 2021

Ally Kelly is CEO of Mind Blank, a charity she formed in 2011 to reduce the risk of suicide by running mental health workshops in schools, workplaces and communities. Kelly shares her thoughts on stress in the finance industry.

It is an undisputed fact that the financial sector is an occupational area at risk of work-related stress and psychosocial disorders among employees. Although Australia’s financial institutions are generally well placed to deal with the economic shocks from the COVID pandemic, a large number of workers in the community have not been so fortunate.

A rise in work-related stress within the sector, particularly among employees who deal with financially traumatised customers as part of their everyday workload, has become apparent. Stress may come from servicing customers who are expecting unrealistic levels of support or leniency, or prospective borrowers who have inflated expectations of their ability to take advantage of low interest rates to enter an aggressive housing market.

Angry, argumentative or traumatised customers express strong emotions, and these can trigger strong physical reactions in frontline workers. Whether these emotions are expressed in person, over the telephone or in an email, the effect is the same. When such incidents are experienced regularly and repeatedly over time, they have a detrimental effect on the body and can eventually lead to serious physical and mental health issues.

Knowing the signs of acute stress in ourselves, in our co-workers and in our employees is a good first step to helping stop a trajectory into burnout. Symptoms of stress are well documented and include being easily agitated, experiencing constant headaches, feeling overwhelmed, experiencing low self-esteem, constant worrying, an upset stomach, including diarrhea and nausea, increased use of alcohol, drugs or cigarettes – the list goes on.

Ongoing training such as mindfulness classes, mental health first aid or courses on emotional intelligence can provide individuals with tools and strategies for self-care when dealing with difficult situations. Your workplace may even offer such activities during office hours.

It is an essential first step to becoming equipped with wellbeing skills. It is, however, certainly not the end of the story given that we live in a competitive world where there are never-ending deadlines and an ongoing vested interest in the pursuit of profits.

So, what are some simple cost-effective care strategies individuals can employ? One of the most proven and effective ways of maintaining good emotional health is to connect with others and talk it out. It’s so simple that it can be overlooked; however, if you share your concerns and stressors with someone it can release stress instantly. Keep an eye out for a good listener, as it’s important to reach out to the right people who you trust and who can actually support you. At work, it could be an impromptu debriefing with respected peers after difficult client meetings.

At home, it could be a simple phone call with a friend. It’s an easy and immediate first step towards combating the accumulation of stress and has relatively little to no cost involved.

Regrettably, workers in the financial sector report feeling their career prospects may be damaged if they discuss their anxiety or mental health with co-workers and/or supervisors. The resulting culture of silence can severely impact the mental health and productivity of an organisation. This sort of stigma will not be overcome overnight and will require a strategic plan and leadership buy-in to prepare for a culture of wellness. Without mitigation of the stressor, additional mental health issues may develop. If left untreated, such issues could lead to long-term consequences.

As individuals, one of the best things we can do to minimise the mental health impacts of a stressful job is to schedule time for family, friends and social activities outside of the workplace. The demands and rewards that go hand in hand with working in the financial sector can be extreme, and workers typically struggle with this work-life balance. Employees who are the happiest and most productive are those who set boundaries for themselves. Not responding to work texts and emails at home are one of the obvious but effective rules we can implement to help us maintain our work-life perspective. The use of structure and rituals to mark the beginning and end of the work day is not uncommon but becomes vitally important during the work-from-home exodus during COVID lockdowns. Rituals are unique and personal. For some they lie in the commute, for others it’s simply a change of clothes or a walk or run before or after work.

It may seem simplistic; however, sharing your own coping strategies and ideas with peers and colleagues serves to not only pass on potentially life-saving ideas and strategies for avoiding burnout; raising a conversation about mental health also goes a long way towards dismantling stigmas and building a culture of open discussion about mental health in the workplace. Hosting a conversation about support early on can assist you in finding a much quicker pathway to recovery.

Ally Kelly
Founder and CEO, Mind Blank