Adjusting to our new reality and coping with stress

Just because we’re returning to the office and events, don’t assume everyone mental health issues have gone away, especially as we adapt to a ‘new normal’ that comes with its own challenges, writes Virginie O’Shea, founder of Firebrand Research.

I’ve had some interesting conversations over recent weeks with friends and industry colleagues that have made me think a lot about how we all deal with stress. In the current working environment, it’s not always easy to recognise when your colleagues are struggling and sometimes it’s also hard to go easy on ourselves when it comes to adjusting to the daily challenges we’re faced with.

Now, not all stress is bad. A certain amount of stress is good as a motivator to get things done – it gives us that necessary drive to focus on the right things when needed. But too much stress can wreak havoc on your health—mental and physical. Given we’re all adjusting to a very different way of working across the globe—some are in lockdown, others are trying to get used to being back in the office—we can expect that most of us have been experiencing anxiety and stress of some sort on a weekly or even daily basis.

Going to an in-person conference can be stressful, for example. Not every person is comfortable shaking hands or hugging anymore, so you have to try and pick up on body language to read the room. Coughing or sneezing in a public setting can bring on serious anxiety for everyone involved—honestly, it might be easier to have a sign that says “I have a cold and not coronavirus” to ease some of the concerns. It might sound trivial, but all of these things plus commuting again, adjusting to a different routine during the working day and trying to acclimate to being around crowds of people is taking its toll on our stress levels.

Firm-level policies about the return to office are also challenging to navigate for staff and managers, especially if some degree of manager discretion is involved. Some people really do work better from home and some work much better around other people. Some people live in crowded or unsuitable accommodation for home working, others have a comfortable setup that they’re loathe to leave. I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all approach to this stuff, but that can also place stress on people, especially if presenteeism is viewed as a competitive differentiator.

We’ve talked a lot about resilience during the pandemic, operational and otherwise. Resilience shouldn’t be our default setting when it comes to humans, however. Taking on more and more stress isn’t going to help you in the long run—in your career, your health or your home life. Capital markets have always fostered this tougher, faster, harder mentality and much has been written about how this has turned many away from the sector, especially new entrants.

But it isn’t just the new entrants that are struggling with all this. It’s all of us. If my conversations with people are anything to go by, we need to take more care of ourselves and our teams. Talking about our mental health isn’t always easy, but letting people know that we need time out and taking that time away from the work environment is important. Even if life is expected to go back to whatever “normal” ends up being, it will take a period of adjustment and maybe the industry needs that wake-up call regardless.

In the short term, we did a great job of asking our team members, clients and colleagues how they were coping at the start of the pandemic, maybe we need to go back to asking those questions again.