Giving your Mental Health a Spring Clean

Waking up in the dark and travelling home after sunset can sometimes make it seem like we’ll never see the sun again. Now we’re waking up to brighter mornings and enjoying lighter nights, it’s the perfect time to leave any winter gloom behind.

We can all make subtle changes that make a big difference and with the annual spring clean just around the corner, we should consider whether our mental health could use some attention too. But what are some of the easy changes we can make to help ourselves feel better?

Exercise more

We all know the physical benefits of regular exercise, but we often fail to think of it as one of the most effective ways to improve our mental health.

Whether it’s lifting weights or running through a park, you can use this time to refocus your mind and get away from any negative thoughts. Not only does exercise provide a welcome distraction, it also releases endorphins in your brain helping you to feel better about yourself.

When exercising, the brain also changes to encourage neural growth and new activity patterns to promote feelings of calm and well-being. Cool huh?

Those who exercise regularly may also benefit from stress-busting physical attributes throughout the day — more energy, better sleep and a more positive outlook all contribute to helping you maintain a more relaxed, healthier lifestyle.

Watch your diet

We’re all guilty of not watching what we eat in the office from time to time. Hectic days can often lead to an unhealthy meal or scoffing junk food at our desk so that we can quickly get back to the never-ending pile of work. Eating habits are something we commonly link to our physical health, but getting the right nutrition isn’t just good for our bodies, it’s good for our brains.

Eating healthier foods such as fresh fruit every day report less mental health problems than those who opt for more unhealthy foods such as crisps, chocolate and chips.

Not eating regularly enough can cause drops in our blood sugar levels and with these lows can come feelings of irritability, tiredness and depression. By preparing healthy foods to take to work with us, or avoiding the chippy for a healthier option, our mind and body can be nurtured to reach better physical and mental wellbeing.

The annual spring clean is the perfect opportunity to look at our kitchen cupboards and eating habits to see where we could positively improve our lifestyles. When it comes to stress, the little things can sometimes make the biggest impact.

Clean up your mind

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Make the most of the lighter mornings and evenings

Did you know that lighter mornings and evenings give us up to 5 more hours outside to be in the garden or park! Why not write yourself a list of all the things you’d like to achieve this summer, and rather than rushing through them at the weekend, get up early and tick one off your to do list before breakfast — hey, why not even have breakfast in your newly weeded garden!

Not a morning person? Make the most of some al fresco dining and get your friends around for a BBQ or dinner in the park. There’s nothing better than a giggle with mates and a scotch egg to get you through the working week.

At the same time as we start spring cleaning the cobwebs from our homes, the warm weather and longer days give us the perfect opportunity spring clean our minds. We should let the change in season help us to reduce our everyday stresses, by allowing us to rejuvenate and realise that the little changes can make a big difference to our wellbeing.


How to spot stress in your workforce

Being in charge of a business can come with its own arsenal of stress inducing scenarios that may distract you from the everyday trials and tribulations of your workforce. However, with the company’s bottom line and people’s health at stake, it’s important to take a step back from your own work and ensure your employees have all they need to maintain an environment that minimises stress.

Before delving into the signs of a stressed workforce, the common causes of workplace stress have to be addressed to discover which could apply to your workplace:

Role ambiguity – Not having a clearly defined role in the business, this uncertainty leads to unpredictable workloads and responsibilities.

Work overload – Variety may be welcomed in the daily pile of work, however making your employees do more work than the day allows will quickly provoke stress.

Unchallenging work – Doing the same monotonous tasks every day can leave employees in a rut. They want to grow their careers and challenging them with new tasks and opportunities helps build a healthy workforce.

Interpersonal problems – Every workplace needs to create an environment where workplace disputes can be handled through the right professionals, this will help solve any conflict in the workplace such as bullying and harassment.

Changes in the business – Restructuring may sometimes be an important part of the business process, however not having a clear structure can create more stressful scenarios as some employees may be left without the right support.

Company culture – Trying to fit into a new group can be stressful at the best times and a culture that promotes inclusiveness can help new and existing employees relax as they start a new role.

Cases of workplace stress aren’t always obvious and a failure to deal with the problem can lead to decreased productivity and output quality, alongside this it could lead to a struggle with employee retention.

The signs of stress can be easy to spot once you know what you’re looking for. However, we can often notice the symptoms and signs of stress in ourselves, but when others display these same indications, we often ignore them.

Writing for HR Zone, Jamie Lawrence says:

“At the end of the day, to spot signs of stress in others really requires us to be able to recognise them in ourselves too. When we do spot signs of stress in others, it's important to remember there is a solution.”

Some of the common signs of individual stress within the workplace include:

  • Taking more time off than usual
  • Increases in substance habits such as smoking, drinking and prescription or illegal drugs
  • Abnormal behaviour such as becoming more emotional, irritable and frustrated. This behaviour may lead to a level of negativity that begins to damage both domestic and work relationships
  • A change in a person’s sleeping pattern or eating habits
  • More visible physical reactions can occur including an increase in sweat, blood pressure and more common heart palpitations.

Alongside the stress of individual employees, it is arguably easier to notice stress within a team. Internal arguments, poor performance and an increase in customer dissatisfaction are all common signs of a group suffering from workplace stress according to the Health and Safety Executive.

If you do notice signs of stress within your workforce, you may be tempted to bury your head in work and hope it resolves itself. However, continued stress could lead to a variety of mental and physical ailments, which can affect the productivity your entire workforce. More importantly the health of employees is at risk if they remain stressed for prolonged periods of time.

It is estimated that by 2020, depression will rank second as the leading cause of disability worldwide and with stress being one of the leading catalysts to depression, it’s important that we stay on top of it at home and at work.

Employers have a responsibility to provide a safe working environment for all their staff and by understanding the signs of stress we can work to help train ourselves and line managers to ensure we can notice when employees are struggling.


Life Hacks for Productivity

According to the University of Cambridge, approximately half a million UK workers believe the amount of stress they face in the office is making them ill. Alongside this, up to 5 million people feel ‘very’ or ‘extremely stressed’ due to their work. With stress being a major factor in the development of mental health issues such as depression and anxiety, it’s important that we feel we have the tools to remain in control, whether that be at home or in the office.

When the workplace gets too stressful, we often lose concentration and our worries begin to severely impact our productivity. During these moments, taking a step back to reassess the situation and finding positive solutions are key. At Hear and Now we want to help you handle stress, here are 5 easy ways to help you try and beat back the tide of workplace stress.

Take regular breaks

The working day can be taxing upon us all. Whether it’s staring at a screen for 8 hours, crushing workloads or a consistent stream of meetings, office life can swiftly become very stressful.  What’s important is to recognise early signs of stress and then to make sure you allow yourself to take short breaks throughout the working day.

Bupa recommend 5 to 10 minute breaks every hour, focusing on something else besides work. Alongside this, they suggest workers utilise their full lunch break to disconnect from work. These breaks can offer a chance to recuperate, breathe and discover new perspectives on the tasks at hand:

“So, next time you’re feeling stressed, tired or unable to concentrate at your desk, take a break. Even getting up to make a cup of tea or talking to a colleague for a few minutes can do you the world of good. Your health in the workplace is equally as important as your health outside of work, and mini breaks play an important role in this.”

Set time aside for emails

Sometimes the sheer amount of emails we receive on a daily basis can become overwhelming, with one study suggesting that the average professional sends and receives around 122 emails a day.

Naturally we want to promptly reply to these emails and keep on top of our inboxes, even if it means we lose momentum on the task at hand. However, losing our train of thought impacts our work, productivity and focus. By setting time aside for emails, whether it be the beginning of the day, just before lunch or at the end of the day, you’re ensuring you don’t miss out on any crucial, time-sensitive emails, and that it also does not interfere with your train of thought. While being reactive may seem like the best way to handle emails, a more proactive approach will allow you to manage your time more effectively.

Find your perfect playlist

Music stimulates our brains and finding the right playlist can help us focus when we need it most.

Our brains have two different attention systems: a conscious one which helps us focus on what we want to concentrate on and an unconscious one which shifts our attention to anything our senses suddenly pick up, a glass smashing for instance. While it’s almost impossible to turn off the unconscious attention system, music can offer a way to nullify its ability to distract us. With non-invasive, pleasing sounds we can remain focused on the task at hand.

Finding the right music to suit you is down to individual tastes. Our office has a variety of different playlists. Rosa, our Chief Product Officer loves Peaceful Piano and Lizzy, our Product Experience Manager is often found on Spotify’s Stress Buster playlist

Stop Multitasking

We often believe that if we’re multitasking we’re being more efficient, as working on multiple tasks and projects at the same time can only increase our output or quality of work right?

Unfortunately, this isn’t the case and psychologists have found that trying to multitask can lead to a loss of time and productivity. By dividing your attention between two different complex tasks, you’re not truly focusing on one and this can lead to more mistakes and potential problems with your work.

If your to-do list begins to stress you out, trying to finish as many things as possible often seems like the most proactive way to approach it. However, this frequently isn’t the most effective way. Organising a structured plan allows you to take on one task at a time, preventing you from being overwhelmed with work related stress.

Breathe

While it may seem like an obvious option for us to suggest, there’s some great science behind the breathing methods used to help regain control and provide calm in stressful times. We’re excited to show you how this technique allows you to take control of those stressful moments to achieve a new perspective on the scenario.

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The Science behind Stress and Deep Breathing

Whether it’s at work or home, we all get stressed. Although stress can help us meet that looming deadline, win a race (or run from a bear!) prolonged or chronic stress could lead to problems in  our mental and physical wellbeing. While most of us are accustomed to the feeling of stress, we often fail to fully understand what it is and how to react to it.

When presented with a stressful situation, your brain tells your body to produce hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. This activates our ‘fight or flight’ response, causing our heart rate to become almost metronomic and blood pressure to rise.

While this helps us deal with the immediate pressures facing us, the prolonged release of stress hormones can lead to a variety of ailments including headaches, stomach problems and high blood pressure. This can even increase the risks of stroke or heart attack. More commonly,  long term stress leads to a decline in mental wellbeing, playing a key role in the development of depression and anxiety disorders.

Keeping on top of our stresses can be tough when we’re faced with situations that overwhelm us, but there are steps we can take to manage our tensions and anxieties.

In these situations, deep breathing techniques and other mindful practises can help promote mental wellbeing and calm anxieties.

In an article for Forbes, Dr John Paul Minda, Professor of Psychology at the University of Western Ontario, commented on how important mindfulness can be:

“One possibility is that mindfulness meditation can help people to be more attentive to their own emotions […] by being aware of negative feelings as soon as they arise, people can engage in positive remediation rather than dwelling on the negative cognition.”

However, achieving mindfulness can be hard. We can’t always track the progress we make and noticeable results can take a long time. Improving mental wellbeing using mindfulness  requires time out of busy schedules every day if we ever hope to truly achieve it.

While creating a stress-free environment is near to impossible in this fast-paced world, tracking your stress and its patterns, and spotting early symptoms can make a huge difference.

One of the easiest and most accessible ways to reduce immediate stress is the Papworth Method. This deep breathing technique can help you restore some calm and reassess a situation, potentially giving you a completely new perspective.

Alongside this, deep breathing and mindfulness can help to significantly reduce the stress hormones in your body.

A Cosmopolitan article comments on how correct deep breathing techniques can help reduce stress, making you calmer and happier:

“When you breathe horizontally, your vagus nerve — it starts at the back of your head and runs all the way through your body — tells your brain to get into rest-and-digest mode.”

As a result, you’ll feel less tense, sleep better, have less stomach drama, and fortify your immune system.

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As with most forms of self improvement, technique is everything. Breathing deep down into your abdomen will help contract your diaphragm, pulling your lungs down and allowing you to take in more air. With the diaphragm contracting, your vagus nerve is being stimulated, allowing you to trigger your relaxation response and help soothe any ‘fight or flight’ responses your body is having.

While putting time aside every  day to work on achieving mindfulness may be unrealistic, breathing exercises can help you regain control during those daily stressful moments.

Many stress and anxiety relief techniques may seem like a pseudoscience or just plain ineffective, but the science behind deep breathing shows that it can help reconnect your body and mind as you start to ease your stresses and anxieties.


Why mindfulness doesn’t work

We often rush through life without taking the time to notice anything around us, running from A to B and only really stopping when we take a real break or holiday. Many of us are now so used to this way of living that we don’t even recognise obvious stress symptoms, let alone take time to reduce stress.

Slowing down our day and taking the time to deal with stress is important and Mindfulness is currently a popular technique to attempt this. The NHS describe mindfulness as:

“Paying more attention to the present moment – to your own thoughts and feelings, and to the world around you – can improve your mental wellbeing.

Some people call this awareness “mindfulness”. Mindfulness can help us enjoy life more and understand ourselves better. You can take steps to develop it in your own life.”

The problem is, just because Mindfulness is currently very fashionable it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s easy to master, yet many services and products would lead you to believe so.

Our CEO, David Plans, champions the idea that although mindfulness is difficult it can be mastered one small change at a time, especially if you have a way to track your progress;

“Things like mindfulness are difficult to engage with, difficult to understand and even harder to quantify. It’s very hard to track progress on whether you’re becoming a better meditator. But it’s even harder to track progress and what benefit that’s having on your body and your mind.”

Much like improving your physical health through yoga, running, or any other exercise, becoming more mindful takes time and practice. Using mindfulness to manage your stress isn’t easy because as we all know, finding the time in your daily schedule is hard. For mindfulness to truly work it has to become a part of your daily routine and life, turning it into an ingrained habit.

An article by Mindful.org  suggests that there are 5 main reasons why we might be finding mindfulness hard:

  1. We don’t fully understand what it is
  2. We forget to be curious
  3. We make it larger than it is
  4. We only practice when we’re upset
  5. We try to go it alone

We like to add another point to this list:

  1. It’s hard to see/feel your progress and therefore, it’s hard to create a daily habit.

Another problem is that people assume the key is to ‘empty your head’, which is almost impossible to do!

The Huffington Post explains why trying to ‘empty your head’ will not help achieve mindfulness:

“The first reason that mindfulness is extremely difficult is because we cannot instruct the mind what not to think. If I ask you to close your eyes and for the next 30 seconds do not visualize a white elephant, or Barack Obama standing on the White House lawn wearing only American flag boxer shorts, your mind will insert an image and then remove it. That is how the mind negates.”

Mindfulness is about recognising the difference between ‘you’ and ‘your thoughts’ and learning how to stop your thoughts leading to negative emotions or stress.

Similar to building muscle, mindfulness takes time and dedication. However, Hear and Now hopes to help you to master these techniques by giving you immediate feedback (from your body and heart patterns) to guide and help you see your progress, one small change at a time.

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How can companies help employees de-stress?

Workplace stress has swiftly become a growing problem for both employees and employers with UK mental health charity Mind, revealing that 21% of workers had called in sick to avoid stressful scenarios. The stats also saw 42% of respondents claim they have considered resigning due to stress while 14% went to seek new employment.

Half of the UK’s workplaces report mental health problems within their workforce, however, only 14% have a formal mental health policy in place. With such a detrimental effect on both mental health and productivity, employers need to establish a culture that promotes mental wellbeing.

Many workplaces suffer from a disconnect between employee stress levels and employers picking up on the issues. Even when there is acknowledgement, many companies focus on how likely an employee is to suffer from stress instead of looking to deal with the causes.

Tech giants like Google offer playful office environments fully equipped with designated sleep areas, whilst Virgin provide employees with unlimited holiday days, but there are easier ways for managers to promote a healthy working environment.

Recognise stress as an issue

Throughout 2015/16, stress accounted for 45% of all working days lost due to ill health and companies that don’t recognise it as a problem stand to lose out on profit and talented staff. While a ‘Band-Aid’ approach may offer a quick fix, locating the causes of workplace stress can help create a more streamlined business.

HSE define some of the most common causes of workplace stress as:

  • Overload – Excessive workloads combined with tight deadlines
  • Control – A lack of influence towards the way the workplace is run
  • Support – The level of information and support employees receive from colleagues
  • Culture - An office that chastises mistakes instead of learning from them
  • Roles – Not having a full understanding of the job and its requirements

The first step to solving an issue is admitting there is one and by recognising stress in the workplace you can start to build a healthier working environment.

Listen

While some may feel intimidated by their seniors, it’s a manager’s job to ensure they’re approachable by any member of their team who has a problem. Stress becomes less of an issue if an employee knows they have someone who will take their concerns seriously.

Maintaining an open door policy can allow teams to find solutions to their work problems with aid from management, without the fear that their boss will conclude that they can’t handle the job.

One of the most important things a company can do for their employees is provide an open atmosphere that promotes mental comfort and wellbeing by allowing issues such as stress to be discussed.

One Reddit user commented on the openness can help within the workplace:

I am very open with my bosses and will let them know when I am overly stressed out and what I plan on doing about it. They've always been very understanding and it has never become an issue. I think keeping that communication open is extremely important in keeping everyone comfortable and healthy.

With employees looking to their seniors for work guidance, those in management roles are well-placed to help identify and manage stress throughout the company.

Promote a positive team environment

A team that doesn’t support one another can be prone to problems which will greatly lower the overall productivity. Ensuring various teams communicate well and are ready to support one another can be a strong step in eliminating problems before they arise. Employees that know they can turn to and rely on colleagues will be able to seek help during potentially stressful times.

How can office culture help mental health?

While employers all want their employees to work hard, it’s also important to establish a culture which allows work to be managed efficiently. Workers who have to take their workloads home with them on the weekends could see their mental health worsen if they begin to accept that as normality.

PricewaterhouseCoopers for example, encourage their employees to avoid their work emails outside of office hours and reportedly try to ensure each staff member takes all of their allotted annual leave.

Millennials are said to be more driven by the idea of maintaining a work-life balance than achieving financial security. As they slowly become the world’s prominent workforce, employers need to work to promote a company culture that works to develop healthy balances between work and life. Focusing on ways to tackle workplace stress could be the key to retaining top talent.


It’s OK your heart-rate is supposed to be uneven, that’s just HRV

If you’ve ever seen a doctor in a movie take someone’s heart rate just as they’ve collapsed and someone yells “Is there a Doctor in the house?!” you may have wondered why the physician always grabs their wrists and looks at this watch as he calls for complete silence.

From an outsider’s perspective it looks like he’s trying to see if the heart beats are in-time with the second hand as it ticks forwards.

With this assumption it’s easy to assume that a good heart-rate is monotonous, with the same space in between the beats. But in reality, a healthy heart beats at odd intervals, almost totally contrary to a ‘well oiled’ machine.

Think about your heart in this scenario

You’ve just finally managed to escape from a predator that’s been tailing you for an hour (hey, it could happen… but let’s hope it never does). You’ve got to someone quiet and safe, and all you can heart is your heart beating so steadily that it fills up your entire attention.

Ba-bump. Ba-bump. Ba-bump.

You notice it’s strangely regular for having been in a such a stressful situation. Why is it so regular you ask?

Turns out, this is a defining factor of body stress and an indicator that your body is still in flight or flight mode. Flight or flight mode is basically what it says on the tin. It’s a response that is linked to the sympathetic nervous system, similar to the gas gas pedal on a car. When you get stressed or need to run (or choose to run!), gas flows into the engine to allow us to go faster. That’s our heart (the engine) pumping blood around to allow for more nutrients to feed our muscles.

When the body realizes that it has to drive for a while or at top speeds, your heart goes on ‘cruise-control’ and starts pumping those vital nutrients around your body in a uniform way, so you can race faster, for longer – hence the monotonous heart beating.

This obviously a good thing for a short while, your body wants you to escape that predator or win that race or just keep doing those jumping jacks because it’s good fun. But eventually you’re going to run out of steam and this is where the parasympathetic nervous system has to come into play.

Your heart beats are defined by how sympathetic you are (to yourself)

If you had to define your heart rate in terms of ‘stressed’ or ‘not stressed’, that definition would rely on your heart-rate variability (or HRV). It’s not the beats themselves, but the space in between the beats that counts in HRV.

Measure the intervals between heartbeats can tell us so many things about the body’s current state and it’s ability to recover from stress; both psychological and physiological stress and fatigue. HRV data can indicate things like the impact of hydration levels during exercise, performance anxiety and even nervousness due to stressful influences.

 

By Tedburke – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

 

And it’s not the same for everyone – state of mind, altitude, temperature, body position, hormones, drugs, age and gender all play a role in affecting HRV, so when someone says ‘this is a good heart rate speed’, it may be for them… but not necessarily for you.

So what’s your heart rate variability like?

Just sit there (maybe like you’re doing now) and place your index and middle finger over the wrist of you other hand. Clasp down using your thumb to apply some pressure. Start counting your pulse out loud, you may begin to notice it’s totally uneven (if not that’s okay, go to the next step anyway).

Next, stand up and jumping 10 times (its okay to smile as you do this) and then take your pulse again.

Notice how steady it is? Now you know why your heart beats at different speeds.


Meditate Every Day for a Healthy Mind and Body

How many times have you heard someone respond to a question with, “Hmm… I’ll have to meditate on that…”?

Beyond helping to clear the mind and access intuition, scientific studies have found ample evidence of the health benefits of meditation, which include lowering blood pressure, improving emotional stability and responses to stress, and increasing immunity and memory. A notable Harvard-BU study showed that instituting a regular meditation practice of 20-30 minutes a day produces profound results after just 8 weeks.

Of course, that is only the beginning, and the practice has to be maintained in order to see real long-term changes. But the best part is, not only are the effects immediate, meditation is accessible for everyone. It can be squeezed into a convenient time during the day – in the morning before work, over a lunch hour or afternoon break, or at night before sleep – and does not require any complex machinery, complicated procedures or special wardrobe.

In fact, the most basic meditation can be done sitting at your desk or driving in the car – which doesn’t even require you to move! The next time you find yourself getting overwhelmed with a task or just want to focus your attention before launching into the next major item on the to-do list, try this:

  1. Set your phone aside; turn off any music, screens or other distracting technology, and come to a comfortable seated position with your spine straight. (Note: This can also be done standing or lying down.)
  2. Place your hands in your lap, either folded or resting on top of your legs.
  3. Close your eyes and relax your face, allowing any tension to release from it.
  4. Bring your attention to your breath – just notice the inhale and exhale. When a thought pops into your head, just let it go, acknowledging that your mind will always try to distract you. Concentrate on your breath, following the inhale and exhale. Don’t try to control it. Instead, just let it flow in and out of your nose. Continue this for 2-5 minutes, or as long as you like.

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For beginners, the idea of sitting down by themselves, alone with their thoughts and no “real” direction, can be daunting. Fear not, there are plenty of free resources out there to help you get your meditation practice started: Check out books from the library or find articles online, subscribe to a free podcast of guided meditations or find a local meditation group. Experiment with different styles and techniques to see what works best for you.

However you choose to go about it, you can be sure of one thing: any time spent meditating is never wasted.


Managing stress in the workplace

Workplace stress is a serious subject. According to a survey from the American Psychological Association, more than one third of American workers experience chronic work stress — and this is costing American businesses billions of dollars a year in lost work hours and medical bills. More importantly, all this worrying at work can have serious consequences for our quality of life — not only at the office, but everywhere else as well. So how do we regain our sanity and take back our lives?

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