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There is no doubt that in recent years, we have all been under a lot more stress than usual.. The pandemic, lockdowns, school and setting closures and not seeing friends and family have caused many of us to re-evaluate our lives. We are questioning where we live and how we work, and in the last month, the escalating conflict in Ukraine has caused further uncertainty and upset for many. A lot of us are feeling the stress and the strain as energy prices rise, the cost of living and inflation. So it is more important than ever that we are aware of these concerns in ourselves, our staff and the children we look after.

The 1st of April marks the start of Stress Awareness Month, which has been held every year since 1992. It is organised and promoted by The Stress Management Society (SMS), whose tagline is “from distress to de-stress” and whose aim is to raise awareness of the causes and cures of the modern stress epidemic. According to their website the last two years have been the most challenging they have faced and they report than in 2020, their services were “overwhelmed by people that were struggling and seeking support”.

The theme for this year is “Community” and the Stress Management Society say it has been chosen because “lack of support can cause loneliness and isolation, which in turn lowers people’s well-being, impacts mental health and can lead to mental illness. Social isolation is an important risk factor for both deteriorating mental health and suicide.”

What is the impact of stress?

Although data about work lost in the last 2 years is not available, in the year 2019/20, stress, depression or anxiety accounted for 17.9 million days lost due to work-related ill health. On average, each person suffering took 21.6 days off work. A recent survey of 2,000 British adults by OnePoll in January 2021 showed that compared to usual:

  • 65% felt more stressed
  • 53% felt more anxious
  • 43% felt more depressed

And the causes were cited as:

  • missed family and friends
  • concern about when things would get back to normal
  • anxiety about the changing rules surrounding lockdown
  • fear of the future post Covid
  • money worries 

What is stress?

Stress is a condition or feeling experienced when a person perceives that the demands on them exceed the personal and social resources they have at that moment. Stress is normal in everyday life and a little bit of stress can be good for us. It is primarily a physical response to a potential danger, where our body releases hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline to set us up for what we know as the ‘fight, flight or freeze’ response. The result of this is that the body reassigns certain functions, diverting the blood to the muscles in case we need to fight or run, and shutting or limiting other functions such as communications and digestion. If the danger passes, then the body reverts to its previous state and we continue as normal.

The problem is that if we are continually stressed, then the cortisol levels in our body stay raised and we find ourselves in a constant state of ‘alertness’ in everyday situations. Our brain receives less blood flow because the blood is diverted to the muscles more often and our brain function is minimised, especially our higher-thinking capabilities. The constant state of ‘alertness’ in our bodies is also detrimental to our health, leading to increases in blood pressure, which is a risk factor for heart attacks and strokes. It can also lead to insomnia, digestive issues and problems with the immune system among others. Where stress turns into anxiety and/or depression, and mental health issues ensue, there can be more severe consequences and at worst, a risk of suicide as well.

What can we do about it?

As nursery managers, we need to be aware of stress levels in ourselves, our colleagues and staff and the children and families we serve. Being on the look out for signs of stress can help us become more aware of the problem and seek help, or assist others to seek help earlier. You may be familiar with the concept of the ‘stress bucket’, in which you imagine your stress as being kept in a bucket. Various demands from people and expectations in different situations, fill up the bucket. Other things we do such as leisure activities, hobbies and meditation can empty it and the trick to staying healthy is to keep the bucket in balance.

So how can we tell if our ‘buckets’ are too full?

According to the Stress Management Society website, there are 4 main areas where we feel stress and there are signs and symptoms to look out for in each. These are shown in the table below.

Ways to de-stress yourself

We all have different ways in which we de-stress. For some, it can be walking in nature or listening to music, for others, it is playing sport or enjoying time with friends. Other ways include adopting a positive mindset, deep breathing, meditation or yoga, turning off technology for a time, going to bed early, improving time-management skills or leaning to say ‘no’.

How to help your staff

As an institution or employer, there are also things that you can do to help your employees manage stress better. You can take a ‘corporate stress test’ on the SMS website to get a snapshot of your business and how it is coping with stress. There are also lots of other resources such as HSE/legal guidelines, stress audit templates, workshop and training sessions, ideas on staff well-being initiatives such as free yoga sessions and personal well-being ideas as well as many other free resources to help people manage stress better. They also have a 30-day challenge with a daily de-stressing planner, stress guide, achievement plan and many other ideas to help aimed at making April 2022 the month to start managing your stress better. Other organisations such as Mates in Mind, have a free “Managing and Reducing Workplace Stress Handbook”, which is available to download for free via their website: Managing and Reducing Workplace Stress Handbook. 

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