Lessons on Stress Management

Kate Wadia, Director of Phase 3, learned the hard way why nearly stopping is a great way to keep going and it’s a message that people professionals need to hear. Part one of her ‘put a stop on stress’ series begins with her personal story…

In the summer of 2018 I collapsed. In the early days after a few weeks in hospital I came to refer to that weekend as my personal Armageddon. I since have come to call it my ‘stop story’.

In this series I’ll write from the experience of ill health, as a company director, pace-setter and HR professional, which is my background.

I will also act as a curator of tips and tricks I now realise I’ve gathered over the years and with a passion since my stop story moment. And as a curator of other stories of the well-known and less well-known of burn-out.

How this series will differ from other self-help content

There are many stories of burn-out, many self-care and self-help books, many factsheets for HR about managing ill-health. My series will be different in two ways.

First, I will show you how and why being unwell in senior management is different; how and why it breaks the rule-book; how and why to deal with it differently

Second, I insist on the practical. I will join up the divide between the business/HR book, addressing policy, procedure and employer-to-employee suggestion and the furtive or self-soothing bedtime reading that is your self-help shelf. These genres both have a clear place, but they need a join.

Along the way I’ll point to a few other reads that manage to fill this awful chasm that seems to exist between the self-help shelf and the realities of being a strategic leader. Here is one for starters: “The Art of Not Falling Apart” (Christina Patterson) which was recommended to me by a senior medic who let me know on the sly of their own burn-out story.

But first a narrative that, to my regret, is non-fiction:

What happened when it nearly stopped

The Friday was not unusual. Few know that one notional reason for joining Phase 3 all those years ago was to reduce my working hours and Outlook has since then been marked up for a non-working Friday.

That means I was ‘only’ at it perhaps from 8 to 5 ish and buzzed around before and after with the stuff of other life. A day off.

I must have left the to-do list incomplete for Friday itself because on return from hospital 3 weeks later left beautifully lined up on the worktop was the mise-en-place for my banana cake.

I went to a concert after work, which was wonderful. I could not speak after. I didn’t know why. I made a mental note that motorway driving after dark after a tough week wasn’t such a great idea. I think I was tired.

On Saturday morning things stopped. When I woke up nothing worked. I will save for my family and friends the full medical file and it is suffice to say that by lunchtime I found myself in resus, battling to communicate with the world outside. A terrified head that no longer connected to my body.

“I’m known for over-doing, over-working, over-thinking and that is not limited to the job that I do.”

That this really happened, nearly a year on, I find difficult to believe is true.

I hope I will always remember how I fought to re-learn things in the subsequent days and the extraordinary concentration that went into re-connecting apparently scrambled messages between head and body. How to breathe properly, how to swallow, how to use the affected muscles.

Months later and with fantastic support from a multi-disciplinary team, a multi-disciplined homework rulebook and much help from my friends and I’m back on my feet. I find my ‘new normal’.

I am very lucky. My condition should allow me to be self-managing and that is my intent. There is this interesting word ‘functional’ which means to doctors that which is clearly there but is unexplained. I hope to learn much more about it for myself and my future.

Dramatic or not, we owe it to ourselves to explain how we do (or don’t) function.

  • As an HR professional we have a duty of care to be on the case with explanations and answers

  • As business leaders we have a responsibility to offer environments where our people can thrive

  • As working individuals, we’ve a responsibility to make the best of our talents, which also means managing the worst. With a little help from our friends.

Stress and the start-stop of lifestyle management

In the past I had not been too great at stopping. Until that early summer day last year when my body decided to book a lastminute.com and check out for a while.

I accept that my own condition is largely explained by stress. I’ve been gently learning about the meaning of stress in my own life and watching out for it in others.

For me learning was a little too slow to avoid a nearly-stop, which I regret. The rest I don’t.

I’m known for over-doing, over-working, over-thinking and that is not limited to the job that I do. This is me and not the fault of a job that I love.

Yet it helps in the job: I have argued the case for the ‘hard graft’ of building a business and succeeding with a passion and a commitment. It may surprise you to know that I’m not going to change that view.

Hard work helps. But how you work hard and what hard work means you may need to redefine.

And if you do work hard, then there are two important lessons.

First, there may be a hard-stop limit to the hard work hours that you put in. Or perhaps it’s a hard graft for a phase in your life with a hard-stop end to it. Do you trust yourself to decide on and commit to those boundaries?

“The stuff you need to rest from is the same stuff that gives rich reward to a life fully experienced. Get on top of it and help others to do so before you have to stop it.”

Second, if it is your choice to work hard – and that’s a valid one – then you need to develop the day-to-day tactics to deal with the consequences.

Readers will probably fall into two schools: those who regard me as stating the blindingly obvious and those who have to battle harder. Creating a set of personal ‘life hacks’ is something to do consciously if you’re not one of those to whom this comes as nature.

Some of the most successful, able and happy people in my professional network and yours too are stressed. Stress is the high, the passion, the intensity of each experience at work and at home – physical, mental, emotional, relational and intellectual. Chances are, if you care and if you’re not one of those to whom this stuff comes easily you’re in the thick of it.

The stuff you need to rest from is the same stuff that gives rich reward to a life fully experienced. Get on top of it and help others to do so before you have to stop it.

Much is written in an academic way about stress-management and wellbeing at work. I’ve no formal qualifications in business psychology nor in healthcare. But the need I had for a personal disaster recovery (DR) plan I hope gives me a degree of insight to offer.

As ever, I want to recognise life is practical. Those schooled like me in the Prince methods to manage can consider me the Senior User on our project board. A personal experience, some professional insight and a practical approach are my credentials.

In the upcoming parts of this ‘Put a stop on stress’ series, I’ll tackle seven suggested areas to focus on, to tweak, to take care of if your own mind and body are stopping you from being your best. In each part I’ll also show you how to support managers and leaders you’re working with to do the same.

How to never stop by nearly stopping is something I continue to learn. You don’t need to learn it the hard way.


About Kate Wadia

Kate is the Director of Insights at Phase 3 Consulting, independent specialists in people technology in the UK. Her passion at work is for bridging the gap between technology and people at work, translating for HR professionals the language of HR systems and making meaningful their potential. She believes that success with people technology is through people and that people are the differentiator.

Using simple techniques drawn from HR experience, project management, business psychology and analogy with everyday life, Kate presents and explains how to work well with technology and technology projects in an HR leadership role.

With a background in contrasting private and public sector HR management, Kate developed her thinking in seeking for herself to understand her first HR systems project-work. She led Phase 3 as Managing Director before choosing to focus on offering ‘Insights’, through writing and speaking engagements, talent development in HR tech and the continuing development of new industry ideas.

Kate’s guiding principle is that openness offers knowledge-sharing, credibility and trust, best delivered with incorrigible enthusiasm.

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