Life can feel like a series of challenges and sometimes, we can find ourselves putting out one metaphorical fire after another. The Collins Dictionary’s word of the year for 2022, ‘permacrisis’, embodies the sense of lurching from one unprecedented crisis to another, such as Brexit, Covid-19 and the rising cost of living.
Our lives and how we work have also undergone significant changes. From pushing for better pay and conditions to a challenging recruitment and retention market, both employees and employers can feel like they’re experiencing one difficult event after another. So what is a permacrisis and how can it affect our wellbeing?
Humans are equipped with effective survival strategies to respond to short-term crises, such as fight, flight or freeze. However, we are not as well prepared to manage a continuous state of threat, says Counselling Directory member Björg Hermannsdóttir.
“Catastrophic events, such as wars and natural disasters, are not a new phenomenon in our world, but in modern society people are exposed to these events around the clock through news and social media,” explains Hermannsdóttir.
“These events may also have concrete examples on our daily lives, such as higher food prices. Additionally, the exposure itself can drain our mental resources and leave us in a state of chronic stress. When a threat persists over a prolonged period, people may feel even less able to respond to it and this can lead to a sense of powerlessness, anxiety, and resignation.”
Often, we experience multiple crises on a smaller, individual scale too. Many workers are worried about money because of the rising cost of food and increasing energy prices. According to a survey of 1,428 workers, more than two-thirds of workers have felt stressed, anxious or depressed because of their financial situation. Employers are also having to make difficult decisions in the current economic environment too, including cutbacks and lay-offs.
“Frequent changes or increases in work demands, a lack of certainty about what is to come, the threat of layoffs, and lack of support are among the things that can increase people’s stress beyond what feels manageable,” says Hermannsdóttir. “High levels of stress over a long period of time deplete our resources and can leave us feeling unable to cope.”
Chronic stress at work can manifest in several ways. For example, it can mean worrying frequently, feeling irritable, experiencing muscle tension or indigestion, sleeping badly and finding it hard to concentrate. And when frustration and anxiety increase at work, it can affect professional relationships too.
“People may also find themselves having more frequent conflicts and find it harder to resolve disagreements with colleagues,” adds Hermannsdóttir. “In turn, this can further drain people’s emotional resources and erode a sense of cohesion and support at work.”
So if you’re experiencing a prolonged state of stress at work, what can you do about it?
The first thing to do is to learn to recognise your own signs of stress. “Noticing growing frustration with colleagues, excessive worries about things outside of your control, an inability to focus or physical tension allows you to assess how your system may be impacted by your circumstances,” says Hermannsdóttir.
The next step may be to assess whether there are aspects of our circumstances you can control. Although there may be several factors you can’t change, there may be others you can alter in some way.
For example, you may be able to prioritise tasks that can be addressed easily, or speak to your employer about what is expected of you. You may be able to adjust your workload or change your working hours to suit you better, which can help alleviate the feeling of being overwhelmed.
Self-care is also important. “Taking regular breaks and stepping outside for a few minutes can help relieve physical and mental tension and help ground us in the here-and-now,” says Hermannsdóttir.
Finally, it’s important to limit your exposure to alarmist headlines, social media and other content that focuses on negative events beyond your control.
“By focusing more of our attention on things we can impact in our own life, we may build better relationships, feel more connected and supported, and have more outlets for creativity, expression, and joy,” Hermannsdóttir says.
“This doesn’t mean we need to stop caring about what happens in the world. Instead, it’s about how we can direct our focus in a way that supports our wellbeing and allows us enough energy to also be there for others.”