• Heidi

Aren't We All Stressed?

By Heidi

This is part two of an exploration into well being and mental health within the cultural sector. You can follow this journey on Sort of Nothing Like A Book Club, our fortnightly delve into systemic issues in the sector. This piece explores stress in the work place. 

It’s a miserable, rainy, Wednesday afternoon in October. I am sitting in my local café with a steaming hot drink, around me are people in my community tap-tapping away at laptops; all dressed to match the russet and pumpkin leaves which are clinging onto the hedgerows that guard the Victorian red brick village primary school opposite me. 

I’ve come here to get some work done, to plough through the ever amounting pile of things that I keep putting off. It should be the perfect backdrop. But, today every little sound is like a little needle. Rather than the usual hubbub that makes getting things done productive, I’m overly sensitive to any sort of stimulus - even the gentlest of soft jazzes playing in the background is increasing my heart rate. None of the sounds create a blanket noise, each individual one is an assault. 

This is one of the physical manifestations of stress. In addition to this, I can feel a dull aching underneath my eyes; and I’m aware of a painful a lump in my jaw that comes from involuntarily clenching my jaw. 

The realisation that I’ve been suffering from stress has been slow to dawn on me, even when I found myself crying on the way home from holiday at the mere thought of going to work - I assumed it was just exhaustion; but then I read this great piece from Joel Gascoigne about his experiences with burn out: 

“This is how I’d describe my experience of burnout: I lost motivation. I just didn’t care. I knew I cared deeply, but I had nothing left. I couldn’t get up in the morning. I felt very sensitive and emotional. It was like anything could set me off, and make me well up. I cried a lot, by myself and with people close to me.” (Gascoigne, 2019

92% of 10,000 public sector workers interviewed by Unison’s stress survey in 2017 stated that they had been under “too much pressure” at work over the past 12 months. HSE’s Labour Force Survey (LFS) noted that 595,000 were off work with stress in 2017/18, and 44% of this stress was due to overwork. During the same period, stress, depression and anxiety accounted for 57% of all working days lost due to ill health (Labour Force Survey). 

However, 74% of those surveyed by Unison stated that their manager had never spoken to them about stress, or explored stress factors in the workplace. Research by Mental Health Foundation noted that only 10% of managers felt adequately trained to discuss stress in the workplace.  

But we’re all stressed, aren’t we? Public sector workers, human health and those who work in education are almost double as likely to suffer from stress than those in other industries (Unison, 2019); and this covers a lot of those in the creative sector. Add to this the stress of freelance work, housing inequalities and funding cuts; and why aren’t we all stressed all of the time? 

I don’t have any answers in this piece, but over the past couple of weeks I’ve been exploring what I can do for my stress levels and what I can do as a manager to support my team. ACAS have some great resources on how managers can support staff, and also note that we shouldn’t expect managers to be experts; but they do have a checklist for key things which may indicate someone is suffering from stress:

changes in the person's usual behaviour, mood or how they interact with colleagues

changes in the standard of their work or focus on tasks

appearing tired, anxious or withdrawn and reduced interest in tasks they previously enjoyed

changes in appetite and/or increase in smoking and drinking alcohol

an increase in sickness absences and/or turning up late to work. (ACAS, 2019)

I’ve found a well being action plan from Mind useful for exploring my own well being and practice; and it’s a great place to start having a conversation. This is the start of a journey for me, and something I don't have all of the information for. What follows below is a few ways in which I am trying to explore my stress levels. 

Exploring How I Use Social Time 

I’ve tried to be better at calling upon my social circle after work, rather than going home to just stew in the day. I’m trying to be better at talking about how I’m feeling or engaging with my community in different ways. But I’m also trying to include low pressure social time, and engaging with people in non alcohol filled spaces. Going for a walk with someone, going to the pub for a soft drink, just being near someone for 10 minutes to go to the library. 

WhatsApp Groups

My friends and I meet as a group about once every 3 months, and it’s a complete accident because we’ve accidentally found each other on the street. But WhatsApp and group chats have been incredibly supportive. I am in a group with a group of women who work in arts leadership, or freelance workers responsible for their own practice and we all use it as a supportive space for celebrating and moaning issues that we are going through. 

Having A Physical Hobby

For about the past year I’ve been working on my allotment or growing things

in pots.There’s something incredibly freeing about having your hands covered in mud, getting attacked by thorns as you try to cut down brambles and cultivating seeds into something you can actually eat for your dinner. When your hands are covered in mud or you’ve got 40 crocus bulbs to plant, you can’t check your phone and it’s a great hobby to help you sleep. 

Taking Time and Trying to Not Feel Selfish About It 

When I was a student I used to box, and I used to be very good at it. It’s a hobby that got lost to the mist of time until I moved near a boxing school. Now I go at least once a week, and work very hard to not feel selfish about doing it. But the truth is I do. 

As I said earlier, these are all things I'm exploring and I don't have all the answers or if all of these work. If you are struggling with your mental health, Mind have a range of resources and support. If you need to talk to someone, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email You can also contact ACAS for support in the work place.