April marks the start of Stress Awareness Month: which raises awareness of the causes and cures for the stress epidemic of the modern world[i]. It’s no secret that the public sector workplace includes some of the most high-pressure working environments in the UK. From firefighters witnessing life or death moments, to police officers dealing with traumatic incidents daily, those working in the public sector have had to see hundreds of situations which many of us will thankfully never have to experience.
On top of an already pressurised environment, budget cuts over the past few years have also increased workloads for individuals working in the public sector. Within fire and rescue in England, for example, government funding was cut by £139.7m between 2016/17 and 2021/22[ii]. Over this time, this has led to a reduction in the number of firefighters working in the sector by 21% since 2010. In turn, adding increased pressure on the remaining fire and rescue service workforce[iii]. Individuals can usually cope with bouts of short-term stress in the workplace, but in the long-term, it can lead to mental health conditions, such as depression and anxiety[iv]. It’s important to try and reduce your stress levels whenever you can to avoid it lingering long-term and leading to further implications in the future. Here are some of our top tips to help tackle stress in the public sector workplace.
Regular exercise and physical activity
Although it’s not new that regular exercise can reduce stress, it’s an important reminder we all need to hear occasionally. There are many mental benefits to exercise. Exercise reduces levels of the body’s stress hormones (adrenaline and cortisol) and stimulates the production of endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers and mood elevators[v].
We know it can be hard to find the time to introduce a new activity into your routine, so instead try taking a small step such as introducing something new once a week, rather than every day. For example, try cycling to work, instead of driving, once a week. Or try fitting in a walk on an evening that you might otherwise spend watching TV. Even though it may just be once a week, you’ll soon start to feel the mental health benefits that exercise can have.
Taking regular breaks
Not taking regular breaks at work is something we are all guilty of doing. Funding cuts have increased workplace pressure and workloads across the public sector, and this is being felt on an individual level. When you feel you have too much to do, it can be easy to convince yourself that you do not have the time to take a break. However, research has found taking breaks away from work can help you improve productivity and also your wellbeing[vi].
Social breaks, like chatting with your colleagues in the canteen, have been found to be particularly beneficial. The feeling of being part of a group and sharing your experiences can help you feel more recovered after the break[vii].
Learn a new skill outside of work
When you are feeling stressed, it can be hard to stop thinking about work on your days off, making it impossible to fully relax or unwind. One lesser-known method for coping with this type of stress is to learn a new skill outside of work. Not only will this become a welcome distraction, a new challenge for your mind to focus on, it may also ease certain aspects of your work life too. Learning new skills can be useful for solving near-term, stressful problems and equip you with refreshed capabilities to work through or prevent future problems or stressors[viii].
Personal development and training
If your stress is largely work-based, it may be helpful to seek additional training or personal development to tackle the stress-inducing situation. By developing your skills in areas you feel weaker in, you face the challenge head-on and learn ways to deal with it better in the future. This, in turn, will reduce your stress levels about the potential problem arising again and give you the power to control the stress you feel about the issue.
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Even though the pressures of the UK’s public sector services will always be felt, it’s important to prioritise your own mental health and wellbeing, no matter what sector you work in. If you find yourself stressed at work, try implementing one or two of these tips into your routine and see what difference it can make.