At Lexvoco’s Sydney In-House Counsel and Government Solicitor Symposium, Tahnee Schulz, general manager and head psychologist at MateCheck, delivered a session on the prevalence and impact of chronic stress in the workplace.
Before MateCheck, an award-winning mental health and wellbeing platform, Ms Schulz ran a 24/7 critical incident response unit which responded to terrorism, natural disasters and other critical incidents.
Her vast experience has taught her that while humans in general are built to handle major events, we’re seeing increasing rates of mental illness in the modern world.
“We were built to experience depression, anxiety and stress from the beginning of time to help us survive. Anxiety and stress gave us the focus and adrenaline to scour the Savannah for threats and run away. Depression got us through the long winters when we needed to be concerned for the future, be frugal, stay withdrawn and sedentary for long periods of time. Within context, a changing of mental states is actually really helpful,” Ms Schulz told the crowd.
“However, the world we live in has changed incredibly in a small amount of time and so have our behaviours. In one century, we’ve experienced technology and scientific shifts that have seen us go from riding a horse and cart to driving cars and flying planes across the world in less than 24 hours.
“Medical advancements have seen life expectancies virtually double and our population has exploded roughly sixfold. The world’s population has shifted monumentally in a short period of time. In such a fast-paced environment, we need to be savvy with our time and energy to ensure both success and wellbeing.”
Ms Schulz noted that most of today’s stress is man-made and chronic.
“We learn more in a single day than we used to learn in a lifetime. You just have to look at your Facebook feed and you find out what Vladimir Putin is doing, what Trump is doing, how many boyfriends are better than yours, how many people’s lives are better, how many are travelling the world. That’s a lot of stuff you’ve just learnt while sitting on the toilet looking at Facebook. Back in the day, we might’ve learnt how many strawberries grew and that Donnie down the road bought eight cows – that’s basically all you had to learn from the day,” she said.
“Mental illness and suicide rates have only recently become what we would almost consider an epidemic. In Australia, mental illness affects one in four, and the idea of four in four is actually not unrealistic. On average, 200 people attempt suicide everyday and eight people die by suicide daily – that’s double our national road toll. While suicide is the leading cause of death for Australians aged 15 to 24, suicide is most prevalent in 35 to 44 year olds. This is our prime working age and when we have many commitments such as a partner and children, a mortgage, and people are really relying on us.”
“Sadly, the legal industry is an occupation that consistently rates in the top two careers of concern. What you do is meaningful and many of you are brilliant at what you do. You see the devil in the detail, but you are also primed to see all the negatives. That’s how your brain works. You have high-pressure jobs with high expectations and clients that expect you to work miracles for them. It’s also a very competitive world and showing vulnerability can be the disadvantage that determines if you get the promotion or someone else.”
However, Ms Schulz said there are numerous ways to manage stress effectively. She noted that allowing adequate time to rest and recover is a big one.
“Sometimes even with good intention we put ourselves under undue stress. Your brain cannot tell the difference between mental, emotional and physical stress – all release adrenaline and cortisol,” she said.
“You may smash yourself at the gym to make sure you are exercising before work. But if you are already rushing through the day, your body needs this time to rest and repair.
“Balance is key. You don’t build muscle at the gym – you tear muscle at the gym and build muscle when you’re resting. Rest and recovery are equally as important for achieving optimal health and fitness.”
Tied into this, Ms Schulz noted that giving yourself enough sleep is another key to managing stress.
“Stressful lifestyles and poor sleep impact quality of life. Among many things, sleep is the time when your brain consolidates information… Sleep is also a time your body heals. You’ll find any cuts or bruises on your body heal a lot faster if you get good-quality sleep,” she explained.
“It’s also a time your body neutralises acidity. When you go to sleep after having those four coffees today, and you’ve got all that adrenaline in your body, your body will neutralise a lot of that acidity while you’re sleeping. A lack of time to heal during sleep leads to inflammation and inflammation is the catalyst to all disease.
“Chronic stress, coupled with a lack of sleep, not only leads to low productivity, mistakes and injury, but it can also lead to mental illness conditions. For example, when both organic and environmental factors are at play, a predisposition for bipolar [disorder] can be expressed. While some of us aren’t born with a mental health condition, our environment can turn on genetic coding that’s been sitting dormant.
“An example of that may be a gentleman who has been very successful and promoted up the ranks. One day he gets told he’s going big time now and that he’ll be traveling across the world. It’s only once he’s been exposed to many different time zones that he notices symptoms inside of himself that he’s never experienced before, and he’s eventually diagnosed with bipolar [disorder]. It’s not that different time zones and jetlag cause bipolar [disorder], but a lack of a structured routine can turn on a genetic predisposition for bipolar [disorder].”
Ms Schulz also noted that proper nutrition and diet is important for mental health and wellbeing.
“Your lifestyle has more impact on your mental health that we even appreciate. Poor nutrition and diet has a major impact on health and the chemical balance in your brain,” she said.
“We produce more pleasure chemicals, such a serotonin, in our gut than in our brain. So, when we talk about having a chemical imbalance in your brain, your gut health can have a great impact on your chemical balance. Focusing on good gut health will impact your mental health and wellbeing.”
Ultimately, Ms Schulz explained that managing stress is about being aware of your choices and how they effect you personally and professionally.
“Have you ever driven your car home and wondered how you got there?” she asked the crowd.
“This is a simple reminder at how we can very easily split off from our body and just be in our brain. The more we’re split off from our body during the day, day-after-day, year-after-year, the less likely we are to notice the daily impact of our choices on our body.
“As a closing comment, I’d like to say you are precious and your time is precious. You can write your car off, your house can burn down, but you are stuck with one brain and one body for life. Give yourself permission to look after yourself. Make positive choices to enhance your wellbeing. Recognise stress in its early stages, eat clean, keep active even into older life, [and] stay connected with things that are meaningful and give you purpose. Prevention is better than cure.”