Navigating stress: Realistic strategies for university staff

Explore practical strategies for managing workplace stress, including insights from mental health experts Mark Simmonds and Dr Dominique Thompson. Discover how to assess if you're in the right career "forest," optimize your existing role, and seek support.

Before we delve into strategies for managing stress at work, it’s essential to understand why we’re feeling so stressed in the first place. A multitude of factors can contribute to our stress levels, from unrealistic deadlines and challenging bosses to personal issues outside of work.

However, mental health author Mark Simmonds urges us to consider a fundamental question: Are you in the right forest? The concept suggests that the better aligned our job (or ‘forest’) is with our personality and strengths, the less stress we are likely to experience, and the better equipped we’ll be to navigate challenges.

If we realize that our current environment isn’t a good fit, it might be time to explore other options within or outside of our current workplace. And if switching ‘forests’ isn’t feasible, there are still adjustments we can make to tailor our work environment to better suit our personality. Mark, a management trainer and mental health author, draws from his own experience of a stress-induced breakdown and recovery to discuss his ‘forest theory’ in a webinar alongside Dr Dominique Thompson, an esteemed GP, TEDx speaker, author, and expert in young people’s mental health.

This article features exclusive excerpts from their webinar: Stress and Burnout Among University Staff: The Forgotten Mental Health Crisis.

We’ll cover:

Are you in the right ‘forest’? A key question for managing workplace stress

It goes without saying that working in higher education is no walk in the park. With limited resources and overwhelming demands, even the most resilient individuals can feel the strain. Therefore, it’s hardly surprising that a recent study revealed that half of UK university employees experienced chronic emotional exhaustion, stress, and poor mental health during the 2020/21 academic year.

In light of these challenges, Mark encourages you to ask yourself a crucial question: Are you in the right ‘forest’?

“If you find yourself constantly bombarded by student issues and chained to a computer screen all day, and it’s not aligning with your passions, then you may be in the wrong ‘forest’,” he explains.

Reflecting on his own experiences, Mark emphasizes the importance of finding the right fit: “When I faced my own challenges, I realized that running a business wasn’t my calling. My strength lies in management training, where I feel truly at home. Sure, I still have stressful days, but overall, I know I’m in the right ‘forest’.”

The goal is to achieve a harmonious balance between your interests, strengths, and environment. If you discover that your current role doesn’t align with your values and strengths, it might be time to explore alternative paths or consider retraining.

Of course, even in the right ‘forest,’ you may still encounter challenges, but you’ll be better equipped to handle them effectively.

“If you’re teetering on the brink of burnout, it’s crucial to reassess your situation,” Mark advises. “Remember, we only have one life to live, so don’t remain stuck in something that doesn’t truly resonate with who you are, regardless of your age.”

Are you in the wrong part of the right ‘forest’?

Sometimes, even if we’re working in the right field, we might need to change our role within that field to better align with our strengths.

“If you’re in a bureaucratic role, can you move more to a student-facing role? Or vice versa?” says Mark.

Look into whether there is any additional training available to enhance your skillset. Are there any options within your workplace to move sideways into a different position? Could you speak with a career coach to help you identify your strengths and weaknesses and how they might be best positioned?

Spruce up your ‘forest: Practical ideas to improve your existing role

Of course, for some of us, as Dominique points out in the webinar, switching ‘forests’ may not be an option, especially during a cost-of-living crisis.

“I think for a lot of people, they’ve trained to do a specific role, and they might be a bit more limited by how many forests they can visit,” she says.

“It’s not to say you can’t change or retrain, but I guess they might want to look at what their role covers. They might want to change the emphasis of their role.

“I know people have personal situations that may mean that’s hard to change, but there are some very practical things you can do to address your scenario strategically.”

How that might look is by requesting different hours, breaks, or increased home working. Is it possible to delegate a part of your role that you find especially challenging or unfulfilling?

“Someone in the webinar comments mentioned doing 12-hour shifts—three days on, three days off,” says Dominique. “Now, obviously, I don’t know people’s scenarios, but what I would say is that if in that job those 12 hours are specifically dealing with other people’s stress—distressed students and so on—then the first thing I would react to that and say is, you need breaks between those days. At the end of that third day of 12-hour shifts, you’re not going to bring the same energy to those students.”

“I think it is always helpful to review your role. Not just what you’re doing in it, but hours, commitments, breaks, and the way that it’s run. Some people might not be able to just move ‘forests’, but they might be able to change the environment.“

Navigating Stress Realistic Strategies for University Staff

When taking a sabbatical might help

When we feel overwhelmed, it’s not always easy to think logically and strategically. We can’t always see the wood for the trees. In those cases, it might be worth considering whether you can give yourself some space to think by requesting a sabbatical.

“There are options for some—I know it won’t be for everyone—to have sabbaticals or to look at those options,” says Dominique. “I think things like that are really important. You don’t just have to go from full-time job to leaving it and doing something else. You might say to your employer, ‘Look, I’m at this stage; I have all these skills, but I need a break, and they might facilitate that for you, recognizing how valuable you are to the team.

You are not alone: Reach out for help

“I think universities are getting better at this, but staff can, of course, provide feedback and must talk to their line managers if they’re feeling that they’re not getting either the availability of support or if the workload is so bad that it’s leading to burnout,” says Dominique.

“There are the everyday things you can look at, and there are the bigger strategic picture things, but what I really want people to go home with is to understand that making ourselves vulnerable, saying ‘I need a bit of help’ is probably one of the hardest things we can do, especially, when we work in an environment where we’re helping other people, but it might actually be the best thing that you can do for yourself to say. Wait a minute, I actually need some help.

“Don’t let it boil up and cause a ‘forest fire’. I want to remind people that while you’re supporting students, you’ve got to look after yourselves too. There are resources out there. The resource is absolutely brilliant, as is Mark’s book, Beat Stress at Work, which I thought was brilliant.

“The key thing—and I always try to finish with this message—is that people are not alone. They should try to just remind themselves that there are people around them who are there to help and support them.”

Navigating stress and burnout: Additional support and resources

Mark and Dominique provided a wealth of additional help, advice, and stress management strategies during the webinar, “Stress and Burnout Among University Staff: The Forgotten Mental Health Crisis.

To delve deeper into Mark’s experiences and insights, you can arrange for him to speak as a guest or purchase copies of his book, “Beat Stress at Work.” Additionally, PartnerHub offers a plethora of resources, staff training opportunities, and workshops for further support.

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