Recognising the signs of stress during lockdown (and how to help!)

Grab a cuppa! This is a bit of a long one!

We’re all in a bit of a daze at the moment, the initial adrenaline from being sent home to work is starting to fade as we’ve set up our workspace, added a teeny bit of structure to our day and are beginning to get used to having the kids, partners or housemates around 24/7. It’s not easy, but at the moment, we think we have a handle on it… or do we? These next couple of weeks will be interesting, as people start to come to terms with this new reality, there will be new, anxiety driven behaviours displayed – so I thought it might be wise to talk about some of these behaviours and how you could help yourself or others through them. 

In unprecedented situations, we don’t always notice our own anxieties – we’re busy trying to keep things as ‘normal’ as can be; but lets be honest, normal isn’t really happening at the moment, so it’s important to show yourself and your colleagues kindness and understanding. Where you may be thriving with work, others may be struggling and where you may be finding parenting frustrating, others may be enjoying the extra time. Focus on your own challenges and don’t think Facebook or Instagram is a true reflection of what’s really going on in people’s lives…

At work, whether we are line managers or part of a team, it’s important for us to all keep an eye on each other. In these strange times, the stress response may not always be obvious; but by the time someone is ready to ask for help or ready to crumble, we can only offer reactive support – whereas if we can learn to spot early signs, we have a greater chance to be proactive and find ways to support ourselves or other people before a real need to intervene on a more serious level.

So, what can the early stress response look like? Well, it may be different for each person, but the first clue is simply in a change of behaviour – anything you notice that doesn’t add up to the person you know should be your first sign; and this goes for yourself too. If you normally wake up and get dressed before breakfast, but today you’re happy to lounge around in your PJ’s – then ask yourself – do I know I’m doing this? or is it reflecting something I need to address? Equally for your co-workers, if you know Jane is ALWAYS the first to a meeting and yet this week has been late for each meeting and is making excuses about her Skype video not working – ask yourself, is there something else going on?

Here are a few other things to look out for:

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Yes, we’re all concerned about the current situation, it’s unpredictable, we’re reminded of it constantly and it’s an incredibly unusual situation. There is going to be worry, but when that worry transfers into almost every conversation and the individual is starting to find concerns or problems in all conversations, then this is a good view into their mindset. A worry about one area in life, leads to other worries and further worries; it’s a worry slide and usually caused by many mistaken thoughts and the consistent worrying has closed down their ability to reason with themselves. 
⇒ In this situation, there are a few golden rules! It’s highly likely the person is already trying to ‘stop worrying’ so for you to tell them to do so, would be counter intuitive. They’ll just start worrying that you think it’s a problem, then they’re worrying about worrying… When someone in your team has started consistently spotting the problems and concerns, help them work through them Ask open questions like “What other outcomes might there be?”, “How can we create a system that avoids that concern?” – allow them to work through their worry and find creative solutions. As a line manager, ask them to think of reasons why the worry might not come true. By doing this, you’re simply asking them to step out of the worry and explore around the problem. 
Consistent worrying can lead to a complete hijack of your logical brain by the emotional brain, it’s important to support the individual (or yourself!) in finding ways to tap into that logical brain, without the judgement or pressure to get it right. 

Here, we need to bring our focus back on achievement. As a line manager, set very short term goals – focusing on things individuals can achieve in a week or less. Make a point of celebrating when these tasks get done and looking at what’s been learned to take forward with anything that hasn’t been completed. Agree goals at the beginning of the week, celebrate at the end of the week. If this is for yourself, decide what you want to achieve and by when and take regular opportunities to see how you’re progressing – if you miss a goal, note down all the things that went well rather than why you missed it. 

Celebrate weekly winsFor line managers – use my‘Weekly Wins’ padpad as a tool for your team meetings, this encourages people to actually notice and write down their wins, focus on learning and also helps them to see where they have been creative and thought outside of the box. Using these weekly can bring a much more positive focus and helps people to be clearer about their strengths – which has been proven to improve wellbeing and performance at work.


Many people will recognise the lack of connection from someone as a sign of anxiety or withdrawal, but over-connecting can also be a sign. When someone is pushing for daily check-ins or constantly asking for advice, support or looking for approval, it’s highly probable their mounting anxiety is kicking in a need to connect – which is turn can lead to a desperate search for approval; especially if you’re their line manager. 
⇒ For those who are withdrawing, try alternative methods of communication. Maybe they have video fatigue – video calls require so much more attention and focus and are quite exhausting. For some reason, we worry more about what we look like and what our surroundings say about us (you can notice to this too as people play with their hair or their face more often as they can see themselves on screen in addition to meeting attendees). Try an instant messenger check-in, or email – this may seem informal, but if you also open up a little yourself and share one of your struggles, you may find them responding in a similar way. Once you can find the start of a conversation around what’s making them withdraw, you can find ways to reconnect. 
    Over-communicating can be a more difficult issue – especially if coupled with a growing need for approval. Its important not to collude with that need for approval (which as a line manager is hard!) but if you do, you’ll encourage the behaviour more. Get them to design their own goals for the week, by giving them ownership of deciding the priorities, you’re beginning to hand the approval back to them. Equally, ask them to develop a written schedule of communication – when they start adding pen to paper on this one, it is quickly easy to spot any excessive behaviour and by them doing it themselves, there’s no embarrassment in their realisation. You can also develop a method of communication charter; for example, email for non-urgent questions, IM for semi-urgent and phone for urgent issues – making sure you give clear examples of what each one means.
This is probably quite an obvious one for most, but when we feel anxious it creates tension in our bodies and tension can then be released through various behaviours – such as shortness in responses, aggressiveness and also unfavourable behaviours such as sarcasm, hostile facial expressions or passive-aggressiveness. Anxiety can spur all sorts of emotions in people and it will be different for each one. Uncertainty will deliver memories of previous situations of uncertainty and the outcome of those will probe the emotions in this case. 
⇒ Remember, you cannot ‘control’ emotions – the way you feel is the way you feel. So don’t try to tell yourself or someone else to ‘calm down’. You’ll only increase the unfavourable behaviour in return. If you’re dealing with someone aggressive, the first thing to do is concentrate on your own response to that trigger. Find ways to keep yourself in a more calm state – remind yourself that they’re having a tough time and you might not know everything that’s going on. It’s not something to allow to happen, but you can pick your timing in bringing it to their attention. You can’t change their emotions, but you can focus on helping them build their own tools to improve the situation. Avoid trying to reason with them when emotions are high, give them space and put the ball in their court to come to you when they’re ready to talk it through. 
When people seem on edge or unable to stay still, this is a common sign of anxiety driven behaviour. If you’re on a conference call with someone and they seem ‘jittery’ or constantly fidgety, it’s a clear indicator that all is not well with them. When people are feeling tired and fatigued all the time it can also mean that the mind is over active with many negative thoughts which can lead to depression. 
⇒ With restlessness, this is something to simply take as an early warning sign – if it’s you feeling restless, then it’s time to look at where you’re not feeling fulfilled – it’s usually a clear sign that you’re not really tending to your needs. Take a look at those core values and needs and work out what you’re missing. Obviously this is tough during the current situation, but if it’s social connection – find better ways to communicate with loved ones, if it’s exercise, set yourself a goal to get you back on track and if it’s finding something to engage with, investigate new projects. When this is a colleague or someone you line manage, focus on what really engages them at work – their strengths and how they can apply them to a given project. You need to help them find something to feel truly engaged with. 
    Fatigue can be from a number of things and needs to be watched carefully to avoid slipping into a depressive state. If it’s due to insomnia then investigate good sleep hygiene. With a member of staff, encourage them to set clear work/switch off boundaries for digital devices. It could also be due to over-communicating digitally – especially video chats as mentioned earlier. So try and work out which meetings NEED to be visual and which ones can be worked in a different way. Gentle exercise can also help here, so maybe a team yoga or meditation session could be in order? You need to help alleviate those stress hormones and exercise is a great way to do that…. 
I’ve grouped these for ease as they all relate to a hijacking of the logical part of our brains. When we are constantly having negative thoughts, we close our cognitive ability and though-action repertoire. The result is less mental capacity for making good decisions and with that comes a fear of taking any kind of risks – because we’re not able to explore the potential outcomes properly. Plus, with anxiety, comes a potential loss of short term memory. So when you notice yourself or a colleague starting to forget simple things, avoiding making clear decisions themselves and asking others “what do you think i should do?” or if they start to avoid the tricky situations, then it’s time to consider some changes. 
⇒ Taking good notes can always help with forgetfulness, asking powerful, open questions to explore outside of the box can help with decision making and risky situations; but ultimately, you need to find ways to un-hijack the logical brain. This comes down to an emotional response, like it or not, you need to think about positive emotions at work! Have a conversation with the team about things they like to do that can help them feel calm, peaceful or joyful – then get them to do some of these things. Find ways to make team members smile in meetings just before you need them to be creative. Use internet meme’s or funny videos just to get them into a joyful place. Positive emotions are a game changer for decision making, risk taking and creativity. Trust me, it works! 
Wow! So that was a pretty mammoth blog post! Hopefully, it’s given you food for thought and allows you to keep your eyes and ears open to your own behaviour and the behaviour of others to help spot the early signs of anxiety. If you can support people (or yourself) in the early stages of anxiety, you may be able to develop tools and strategies to avoid more serious intervention when people have reached a point of needing more professional help or time away from work. Don’t ignore these signs, notice and nurture them if you can and as soon as you feel out of your depth, ask for support immediately, follow your organisations escalation policies and if it’s for yourself speak to someone you trust who can help you find the right support. 
Remember, as many people keep saying and it’s so true – we’re all in this together, so let’s help each other to spot those early anxiety signs and offer proactive care and attention.