Stress has to be the number one barrier to happiness, and this episode of ‘Happiness, A Sceptics Guide‘ considers different ways to define stress, and how to cope with it. And, it answers the question ‘Is stress always a bad thing?’ (The first of a two-part look at stress).
Please consider following the Happiness, A Sceptics Guide podcast over on Podbean. Or, stay where you are and check out this handy video:
Sometimes there’s a time lag between recognizing we need help and support and, taking action to get that help and support. As a coach, it’s not unusual for potential new clients to tell me that they have been thinking about getting in touch ‘for ages’. Others describe it as ‘trying to pluck up the courage’ to get in touch, or ‘psyching themselves up’. So, the challenge for me as a coach is how I can make it easier for people to take that step. This blog post is an attempt to address that question.
The Confidence-Courage Paradox
It seems a paradox that some people might need to gain the confidence to seek coaching to build confidence. But it happens, and the first step is to recognize that it happens. When your confidence takes a hit, it’s tempting to see the hesitation to take action as further evidence of low confidence. This becomes another reason to ‘beat yourself up’ which in turn pushes you further away from taking action. But this is not something specific to you. It’s something common to stress. I’ve had clients show me tattered business cards of mine that they’ve carried around for months, even years. So how can we break this cycle?
Who can benefit from coaching?
Often, in the initial email, potential clients ask ‘Is this something you can help with?’ And it’s written from a very personal perspective, as though these kinds of issues wouldn’t or haven’t happened to anyone else. There’s a sense of isolation and ‘aloneness’ in the questions. And it’s reassuring that yes, such issues can be overcome. Of course, the coaching is unique to the individual, but often the problems are universal themes. Recognizing this is the first step in overcoming the ‘aloneness’. You aren’t alone. It’s not just you. That’s why I’ve written this post.
Anyone can benefit from coaching. In fact, the main thing that my clients have in common is that they want to achieve their goals. Their backgrounds and goals vary enormously, but the principles of coaching are the same. It aims to get you from where you are to where you want to be. Previous clients have included people between jobs, people looking for a promotion, homemakers, students, business people, and entrepreneurs. Sometimes it’s people who just have a vague sense that things could be better. As a coach, I’ll work with whatever you bring. So bring it on.
Not knowing where to start
Another delay in getting in touch is the idea that all goals and action plans have to be perfectly formed. No, that’s the coaching process is for. It’s not easy to make decisions and problem-solve when feeling overwhelmed or stressed. In fact, the first aim of coaching is to shoulder some of that burden. So, if you approached me, we’d first have a chat (via Skype or telephone), and typically it takes about 20 minutes. You get to ask any questions, and I explain the process. Then if you decide to go ahead, I send you a pre-coaching questionnaire. This forms the basis of the first session and offers signposts and milestones for future sessions. There’s nothing off-the-peg. As I coach, I meet you where you’re at. Then we’ll work together to get you to where you want to be.
How long does it take?
Another sticking point can be how many sessions to go for? Some clients come with a long list of goals and are concerned that they won’t be able to fit everything in. Obviously, the cost of coaching is an important factor. I offer to coach in blocks of four to ten sessions because the research indicates that this is the optimal range. In the consultation chat, I’mn often asked two questions:
How many sessions will be enough so that we can cover all the issues I have?
What happens of cover all the issues before the block ends, what then?
To answer both of the questions, it’s crucial first to emphasize the purpose of coaching. It’s not just about sorting out problems. It’s more about empowerment. The take-away value of coaching is that it aims to empower. Through the process of coaching, we create an action plan tailor-made to your skills, strengths, circumstances and goals. So, if we don’t cover every single issue in the block of coaching, you’ll still have a set of skills to put into practice for the remainder. If we cover all the issues before the end of the block, it means you can then look at consolidating the skills and also looking to longer-term goals.
The solution-focused approach tends to work quicker than some of the more ‘inspirational’ approaches to coaching. My background is in psychology and teaching, so everything I do as a coach is based on evidence. So we can cover a lot in relatively few sessions. Many clients express surprise as to how quickly they move forward. As a rule of thumb, if you’re at crossroads, need to refocus and a looking for a life audit, then go for four to six sessions. If you’re dealing with more significant life changes or looking to deal with more deep-seated attitudes and habits, then go for eight to ten. If in doubt, go down the middle. I’ve done a lot of work to make sure that every session counts. Even one session can move your forward.
What’s more effective, face-to-face, telephone or Skype?
When I started coaching, I was sceptical that Skype or telephone would work as well as face-to-face. As part of my training, I had coaching. However, the coach I wanted to work with was in America, so I didn’t have the option of face-to-face. All the sessions were by telephone, and it changed my opinion. Now I work with clients up and down the UK and across the world. Lots of clients are from the US. They read my profile or have read my books and want to work with me. And, if you look at the outcome research for coaching (and counselling), one of the main factors for success is the relationship with the coach. Don’t let Skype or telephone coaching put you off.
So those are some of the practical issues when stress gets in the way of making a decision. You don’t have to be confident to work on confidence, you don’t have to have a masterplan, you don’t have to agonize over the number of sessions. Just go with what you can afford and make the most of every session. The same applies to how coaching is delivered.
Coaching can be a significant investment. It’s not cheap. I’m not a budget coach. And you might achieve the changes on your own with any intervention. It might take a little longer, but you’ll probably get there. The value of coaching is the value you place on getting there sooner, with a new set of skills that will take you further still. For further information see my posts:
Please use this form to request a coaching consultation – it’s just a brief, informal, no-strings chat. You don’t have to leave a message – just leave it blank. Once we’ve had a conversation, you make the decision.
For the BBC Inside-Out (08/2/2016) programme I was asked this question: are zero-hours contracts bad for our health? In this blog post I expand on the themes in the programme, offer some examples of pertinent psychological theories, suggestions as to what appropriate research might look like, and offer some links for further information on zero-hours contracts. A video of the interview is at the end of this post.
The Benefit of Flexibility?
Having worked in a zero-hours contract research job as a student, I valued the flexibility. It operated as a semi-formal arrangement where I had to phone in each week to see what hours I could get. It varied from week to week and often we were at the mercy of a capricious supervisor. For me, it wasn’t so bad. I just had to grin and bear it and grovel a little and in those days students had grants too. I wasn’t going to starve if I couldn’t get as many hours as I needed in one particular week. The work was repetitive and boring and the working conditions wouldn’t exactly meet today’s health and safety guidelines, but It was flexible and many of the people there were really good fun to be around. In many ways, it was ideal for my circumstances at the time but for many people, it was their only source of income.
The Benefits of Zero-Hours Contracts to Employers
Today’s zero-hours contracts are a very different arrangement. I got paid for the hours I worked and only had to be on-site for those hours. In the modern-day versions, employees have had to be on-site and only paid for the hours they are required to work. This means they could spend all day at the work-place and may not earn a penny. Some ’employers’ even though they asserted no liability to provide work still demanded exclusivity clauses that prevented people from seeking gainful employment at other jobs. It’s easy to see how this arrangement benefits the ’employer’ but what are the likely impacts on the employee?
The Psychological Impact of Zero-Hours Contracts
When asked the question ‘are zero-hours contracts bad for our health?’, a number of psychological concepts and theories came to mind:
Reactions to stress
Martin Seligman and ‘learned helplessness’ (being able to exercise control)
Abraham Maslow and the hierarchy of needs (survival and security needs)
Barbara Frederickson and the concept of ‘broaden and build’.
There’s a whole body of evidence that demonstrates the links between stress and ill health, including depression and a suppression of the immune system. This happens when stress becomes a chronic (i.e. long-term) condition. If we accept the argument that one of the reasons people go to work is to provide for basic survival needs and security, it’s not difficult to see the detrimental impact of not being able to predict income (and working hours) from one week to the next. Not being able to effect changes in our circumstances can lead to ‘learned helplessness’, which in turn may lead to depression. To be able to thrive rather than merely survive, we need to be able to build on other emotions and feelings, other than fear. It’s difficult to think aspiration when you can’t even meet basic needs.
Evidence of the Mental Health Impacts of Zero-Hours Contracts
Exploring the Parliament.uk website someone proposed the question (No 19559, December 2015): To ask the Secretary of State for Health, if he will make an assessment of the effects of zero-hour and uncertain hour contracts on the mental health of people holding such contracts.
The reply, from Alistair Burt MP (Department of Health) was short and to the point:
The Department has no plans to make any such assessment. Research undertaken by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) found that, compared to the average employee, zero hours contract workers are just as satisfied with their job (65% versus 63%) and happier with their work-life balance (62% versus 58%).
The research was carried out in 2013. However, the imposition of zero-hours contracts is becoming an increasing trend. It is therefore important to continually monitor the situation. Research findings in 2013 only remain valid if the situation remains static. Alistair Burt’s answer focuses on the people who are happy with zero-hours contacts, mainly because they value flexibility. But what of the people who do not choose to work in this way but are forced into it by necessity?
[I]t is clear that for the majority of those employed on zero-hours contracts this freedom and choice are more apparent than real. For those individuals who require a minimum number of working hours per week to ensure their family is financially secure or those who, confronting severe power imbalances in the workplace, fear that turning down hours as and when offered will result in future work being withdrawn, life on a zero-hours contract is one of almost permanent uncertainty. For those who have had their hours zeroed down on the basis of a perceived unwillingness to work the hours their employer requires or following the lodging of a workplace complaint, this uncertainty can be coupled with the anxiety that comes from exploitation.
What Further Research Do We Need?
The key factor is whether people choose zero-hours contracts or have these contracts forced upon them. When chosen it is most likely that the flexibility the contracts supports a chosen lifestyle. This is in stark contrast to people who have no choice to accept the contracts in order to survive. Clearly, the impacts n mental health are going to be different for each of these cohorts. This is what we should be comparing in research. It’s spurious if not downright dishonest to compare ALL people on zero-hours contracts with ALL people in secure employment.
Of course, not everyone in secure employment is happy with their job. Some people might like to be in a better job. Others might be unhappy because their job does offer the flexibility to support their lifestyle. Also, it wouldn’t be surprising to find people who’d prefer not to work.
So ideally, we’d like to consider four groups on a range of mental-health measures:
(i) Zero-hours contacts – satisfied with terms and conditions (by choice); (ii) zero-hours contracts – dissatisfied with terms and conditions (or not by choice) ; (iii) Secure contracts – satisfied with terms and conditions, and (iv) Secure contracts – dissatisfied with terms and conditions.
This would be the simplest model and would not just rely on comparing descriptive statistics, such as percentages. Part of my job involves research design and analysis. Often many people’s idea of research is just comparing percentages. Sadly, it’s what I’m most often asked to do. However, this should be only the first phase. The stage that gives us answers is the inferential phase. This is where we can meaningfully talk about statistical significances between the different groups. The very basic research design above should be the absolute minimum. Merely comparing percentages barely qualifies as statistical foreplay.
Conclusion: Are Zero-Hours Contracts Bad for Your Health?
We don’t currently have the research data to answer this question. We can only infer from anecdotal evidence and from what we already know about human psychology. Although we shouldn’t equate common sense with a scientific approach, what seems most likely is that conditions that restrict an individual’s ability to take control over basic survival and security needs is likely to have a detrimental psychological impact.
In the Victorian era there were sweatshops, child labour, few worker rights, and casual employment with no guaranteed income. We view this with horror as a sign of gross inequality, ruthless exploitation, and as bad times in which the rich and powerful were able to maintain their idle privilege through laws, customs, and a deeply religious conservatism where everyone was born into and knew their place.
Scratch the surface of our modern world and we can find signs that progress has not been as spectacular as we like to believe.
If you found this blog post useful then please use the ‘like’ and share ‘buttons’. Your comments are also welcome.
If you are concerned about or affected by the impact of zero-hours contracts, here are some useful links are given after the video of the interview.
Being an ardent Grecophile, I have adopted the Greek traditional wish of Καλό μήνα! (Kalo mina) which means ‘Good Month’. Good months don’t just happen of their own accord. It prompts me to consider what would need to happen over the coming month to rate it as a ‘good month’ and what can I do to plan for it and make it happen. It doesn’t necessarily have to be any massively significant event or achievement. Good months are made of more good days than bad days. Good days are made of more daily uplifts than daily hassles. A series of small positive outcomes can make your day.
Goal setting with the PAR approach
The (goal-setting) process for having a good month has three parts:P.A.R. that’s:
Plan – create an action plan for your goals for the month ahead.
Action – Do something each day to achieve your goals
Review – Towards the end of the month, review your action plan and consider what adjustments you need to make the following month a good one.
This approach fits with the coaching principle of ‘feedback not failure‘. The prevalent model of goal-setting – the New Year’s resolution – fails because we adopt an all-or-nothing approach. The first stumble is seen as a failure. It is not! It is feedback that our goals action plan needs an adjustment. The first day of the month offers an opportunity to review and renew your goals. It’s always a work in progress.
So consider what progress you will make towards your goals and how this helps to make up a better month, a good month.
I’m often asked the question ‘how can I use body language to more appear confident’. This is based on the ‘fake it until you make it’ approach to confidence building. It’s what comes of watching too many reality TV shows where the phoney ‘put on a show’ approach prevails. This is anything but real! Confident people aren’t those who walk into a room and say ‘look at me, look at me’. Confidence is about being comfortable in your own skin and that doesn’t have to be loud and ‘in your face’. True inner confidence is a quiet confidence. Outer displays of brash bravado are primarily based on deceit.
The Opposite of Stress
The ‘fake it to make it’ approach is about creating a false display to mask feelings of anxiety and stress. This is nothing but a cover up! Stress triggers the fight or flight response and narrows our focus to physical and mental (cognitive) processes associated with survival. Putting on a show is a survival strategy. It’s a subtle way of putting up a fight. Inner confidence comes from a different place, that is, the breadth of emotions and experience than are more than just mere survival. To tap into the breadth of human experience, we need the opposite of mere survival and stress. That is, we need to tap into the emotional, physical and mental state in which you will flourish.
Relax and Use Your Strengths
In my confidence building workshops I ask people when they feel most confident. invariably the answers reveal two themes: (i) when doing something relaxing (ii) when using skills and strengths. So rather than consider fake, up-tight, survival driven displays, instead consider what it feels like in your body to be relaxed and ‘laid-back’. Top athletes begin by controlling their own stress/relaxation response. That’s the basis of elite performance. It’s also the basis of true confidence.
Get in Touch With Your Body
The ‘fake it’ approach is about covering up how you truly feel. This is rather like dealing with the symptoms rather than the cause. Instead we need to take a deeper (longer term) view, such as taking yoga or Pilates classes, going to the gym, meditation, dance or Zumba classes. Try out a range of things to find something you enjoy. Try acting or improvisation classes. All of these activities will get you more in touch with your body and your feelings. People often say they ‘feel good about themselves’ after these activities. That’s confidence! All of these activities will all help to improve good posture which has positive impact of your general health. Get outside regularly for walks. Research has shown the regular walks in nature boost self-esteem.
Practise deep breathing techniques which help to oxygenate the blood and keep hydrated. Football trainers teach that even if we are dehydrated by a few per cent, it can adversely affect cognitive functioning, that is how we process information. On top of these take a hobby or spend time practising your existing skills (playing to your strengths). Do something you are good at and relish the time you spend doing it.
Body Language Will Take Care of Itself
Decide which of these suggestions you try. It’s important to give them a good chance to work so try things out as personal experiments for a month or two. It needs something that you do regularly and frequently. At the end of the trial period review the impact on you and your life. When you hit on the thing that’s right for you, the confident body language will take care of itself. As a bonus, you’ll also probably feel a lot fitter too!
At times in our lives were are faced with a heap of tasks that seems insurmountable. It’s one big amorphous blob of potential misery with not enough hours in the day to tackle it. Invariably this seemingly unmanageable blob of perceived misery is usually made up of smaller blobs of stuff that are reasonably manageable that we’d prefer not to do. Overwhelm is a form of cognitive overload. There’s just too much information to take in. We simply can’t process the enormity of the task and so we don’t bother. We just sit there and look at it. We become transfixed by it. We can’t possibly start anything else with the blob staring us in the face. And so, the blog gets bigger. We protest that we don’t have enough time to do everything and at the same time we don’t do anything at all.
The cognitive overload (overwhelm) distorts our perception of time. The problem is that we don’t have objective data to counter our subjective response. Here’s an idea, from my coaching practice, to help break the viscous circle. The aim is to find accurate timings for tasks and instil confidence that your abilities to complete tasks.
Break the big blob up into smaller tasks. It’s not going to make them any more appealing but it each one will seem more manageable.
Pick one task, preferably a smallish one that you think you may be able to accomplish relatively quickly.
Do the task and time yourself.
Make note of the timing in a note pad, that you will keep. This becomes the objective evidence that you can look at when you feel overwhelmed.
Repeat the process with other sub-tasks.
What you will find is that the smaller tasks are often completed much quicker than you’d expected. You will also have objective data to call upon next time you are faced with the task.
As a psychology lecturer, it has not been unusual for me to be faced with a pile of more than 100 or 200 student essays to mark (grade). I simply split them up into batches of five, and then tackle those. I put the big pile out of sight and just focus on five at a time. I make a note of how long it takes me to do each batch of five. What usually surprises me is that the essays don’t usually take as long to mark as I first expected. You can apply the same principle to mundane things such as the ironing. Look at the labels in the clothes and create three piles based on the dots on the label. Three dots need a hot iron. Tackle those first, switch the iron setting down to two dots then have a little break to allow the iron to cool. Then tackle the two dots and final the one dot clothes. Make sure you make a note of the timings. Ideally do it a few times until you get your average timings.
What this “break-it-up and time-it approach” does is it creates smaller more manageable tasks and it provided objective data.
I now know that after an elaborate dinner party where I’ve used used just about every utensil in the place, it only takes about half an hour to wash them. When I first look at the pile it looks as though it’s going to take a three times that. Now that I have the data, my perceptions have changed and my feeling of overwhelm has reduced. Conduct your own personal experiments to see how it works for you.
How you view the world influences what you do in the world and vice versa.
So a huge pile of paperwork seems insurmountable and may cause you to think ‘I’ll never get through that’. And of course, for as long as you see it as a huge, insurmountable pile of paperwork, then you will struggle. However if you break it down into a series of small, manageable piles of paperwork, you perception of the task will change.
When you are under stress, your perceptions are distorted, including your perception of time. You will underestimate what you can achieve in a given time and you’ll overestimate the amount of time a task will take. The problem is, you don’t really have an accurate idea of how long the task will take – you’re just guessing. What’s more, your guess is negatively distorted.
There is only one way to counter your distorted perception of time and that it to get some accurate information. This is where the idea of personal development experiments comes in useful. Firstly, break the large task in to smaller, manageable chunks and then time yourself to see how long it takes to complete one chunk and make a note of this. Do this for a second equally sized chunk and make a note of the time, and again for a third chunk. If you add the times up and divide by three, you’ll get a more accurate (average) timing per chunk. This will allow you to make a more precise assessment of how long the whole task will take to complete.
By this time your stress level will have decreased too and your perception of the task will have changed. Doing will have influenced the viewing and now you’ll have a new reference point on which to base future experiences and you will have completed part of the task too.
It’s often the petty daily hassles that drag us down and cause us stress and those little surprise daily uplifts that balance it all out. So, I just thought I’d pass on this bright moment.
(More than 200 dancers were performing their version of Do Re Mi, in the Central Station of Antwerp, with just 2 rehearsals they created this amazing stunt! Those 4 fantastic minutes started the 23 of march 2009, 08:00 AM. It’s a promotion for a Belgian television programme looking for someone to play the leading role, in the musical of The Sound of Music).
We often say that ‘bad news comes in threes’ but do not seem to have a corresponding rule for good news.
The ‘hassles and uplifts’ theory of stress argues that it’s the little things in life that tend to grind us down, such a miserable shopkeepers, someone ‘cutting us up’ in traffic, queue jumpers, or grey skies.
By contrast, it’s the little things that tend to ‘make our day’ such as compliments, a smile from the shop keeper, good manners and common courtesy, a few rays of sunshine, someone giving up their seat on the bus or letting you in the queue or a particularly good cappuccino.
At the end of each day we do a mental balance sheet. If the petty hassles and niggles outweigh the little uplifts, we say we’ve had a bad day. If the uplifts outweigh the hassles, we say we’ve had a good day. The great thing about this is that we can take control and turn stressful days around by creating more uplifts for ourselves.
However, the process starts by retuning our perceptual filters to take stock of good stuff to balance the pessimistic prophecy that bad things come in threes. Here’s how: