Counting sheep – Why companies are starting to really pay attention to the wellbeing of their staff in the workplace

 In IPBN, Life and career coaching, News

Sit through the number of panels at workshops and conferences with company executives that I have over the past 20 years and there’s one rather tired and worn out stock cliché that comes out of all the mouths of CEOs when discussing the secret to their success and what is really important for their companies — the staff.

“We would be nothing without our staff.” “Companies are built of people”, “Our employees are what most matters for us”, you’ll hear time and time again ad nauseam.

But do they really? What does that trite catchphrase really mean in practice? Is it just company propaganda, tokenism, window dressing, or as the Portuguese like to say: “just for the English to see?” (É só para Inglês ver).

But then Covid came and people started working from home. They had time to take stock and asked themselves the questions: “Am I working to live or living to work?” How is working all the hours God sends impacting on my family and social life, my mental well-being, and my physical health?

Irish-Portuguese Business Network (IPBN) member and Leadership and Wellness Coach Brendan O’Neill, after consistently feeling grumpy and worn out by his high-powered job, faced the same questions and instead of continuing to drown his stress in booze, began to seriously wonder if it was really worth it.

Establishing healthy attitudes

Brendan draws on personal experience when he himself went through a tough patch in his life. “I was overweight, struggling with a drink problem, with a sense that I was not really happy and living my life to the full” he told around 50 IPBN members at a webinar last week.

“It was then that I began a journey into wellbeing. It started with getting in shape; I hadn’t exercised for a long time. Then, I started improving my diet and ate better, passing through Kato and Paleo diets (the former a low-carb, high fat diet; the latter; a modern-day take on the diet of Palaeolithic cave people).

Brendan then established a more healthy attitude to alcohol — he just went on the wagon! “I started to become a more healthy and rounded person and left my stressful job at SEACO.” (Seaco – a company that has one of the largest container leasing fleets of standard and specialised shipping containers in the world.)

So we start with a well-being reality check, although it not clear that a short pictorial exercise where we are encouraged to pick a photograph of a sheep from a series of 10 – you know, the kind of boxes of images where you have to click all the ones that contain, well a sheep in this case, to show you are not a robot!

I instinctively pick the shaggiest, largest sheep from the flock, bypassing the fluffy little white jumping lambs. I do this, perhaps, because with so much hair I secretly yearn not to be as bald as a coot; or maybe it is a reflection of myself; old, worn out from overwork, and just about fit for mutton stew and dumplings!

Companies have certainly cottoned on to the ambiguous and less certain world we now live in. First, the Covid 19 shock, then the invasion of Ukraine, now the high mortgage rates; and younger people employed in companies that are little better than sheep enclosures fitted with screens, headphones and microphones are now actually engaged in the latest buzz term to denote job dissatisfaction: quiet quitting.

Change on steroids

Brendan points to the hallucinating pace of change in recent years, particularly in terms of technology. This has probably not been seen to such an extent since the first industrial revolution in the UK and Europe from the 1830s onwards, with its social, economic and health implications on the mass of countryfolk who drifted towards satantic mills and soot-covered towns with spewing chimneys, in search of work.

Now AI, digital technology, chatbots, automation and robots all seem to threaten to take our jobs – so some believe – and one wonders if we won’t see crowds of malcontent jobless, hammers and petrol bombs in hand, heading for a Google or Microsoft office near you, like some latter-day Luddites.

Should we tune in, drop out and reset the boundaries by taking back freedom and dominion like the digital nomads in the Algarve? A recent survey, says Brendan, points to some 94% of those canvassed in a survey agreed there was “a high level of stress in their workplace”. Brendan says that we are not machines and that productivity should not be our ultimate goal in life. (Try telling that to a host of Portuguese economists who say that the problem for Portugal is that its managers and workforce are not productive enough)

Brendan gives some handy, effective, yet simple tips of how to be less stressed, and more mentally and physically balanced when working in a hectic job.

Move, eat and rest

“Move, eat, rest” is the gist of it — common sense really, but then human beings have always shown a remarkable lack of it when it comes to their own wellbeing — just ask any doctor.

“We need to move our bodies regularly and take exercise breaks, and that includes in the office where most companies have a room or outside area where some simple exercises can be done on an exercise mat”, he says.

A good night’s sleep is essential too for both physical and mental health, not just in terms of quality (this can vary from person to person) but also the quality of that sleep.

“Seven to nine hours is ideal” (Brendan admits he usually goes to bed at 10.30pm) but he says “consistency is important” in the time you actually go to bed.

Brendan points out that our bodies are domains of both emotional and mental experiences. “An emotion, which can reflect in our moods, is a signal to do something. Anger is not a good emotion, yet we must try not to repress our emotions which is equally damaging.

Stress and anxiety can all cause physical health problems, causing high blood pressure and suppressing our immune systems.

Just breathe!

Taking breaks are vital. “We cannot just go from one meeting to another; it’s not a good idea”, he says.

It has been shown that people who are stressed or anxious sigh a lot. Focused breathing practices are a great way to relax and de-stress. Brendan takes us through the 4-7-8 breathing pattern.

Here you first completely exhale through the mouth. Then, close your mouth and inhale through the nose to a mental count of four. Then you hold your breath for a count of seven before exhaling through the mouth to a count of eight.

My research also pulled out box breathing. It’s used by US Navy seals, so probably stands a good chance of working.

There is also the Psychological Sigh. This is an exercise for stopping anxiety and stress in their tracks. The technique is good for those thought-racing, ‘butterflies-in-your-stomach’ moments where it seems like we can’t control our minds. The technique slows the heart rate down and calms the fight or flight response, allowing us to regain control.

But the most important thing is relationships. According to an ongoing Harvard study on human development which was started in 1938, one of the most critical aspects to living a happy life is relationships and the strength of these relationships.

“We need to find community, meaning people we can rely on to bring us back to a state of calm and that is key”, concludes Leadership and Wellness Coach, Brendan O’Neill.