Let’s face it, stress is part of life. No matter what stage of life we are in, it is human nature to carry some stress with us. How many times have you said or heard the words “I am stressed today” or something similar?

This article originally appeared in the November/December issue of Startups Magazine. Click here to subscribe

We are all pretty used to talking about stress; how much we have of it or how its making us feel. Some work cultures (and not the good ones!) may even encourage us to wear our stress as a badge of honour, using it to show the world how busy we are or that we are working harder than our peers.

Let’s rephrase the question now and ask how many times you have said or heard the words “my mental health is bad today”? I bet it’s not as often as people refer to their stress levels.

Society and the workplace are improving, and we are getting better at talking about wellbeing, mental health and its impact, but people still treat mental health very differently to the way they treat and view their stress levels. We know that countless studies state that stress is intrinsically linked to our mental health. Stress that is not managed or monitored = poor mental health!

Some of the most significant factors of stress include the difficulty in recognising what’s causing it, how out of control it makes us feel and how little choice we feel we have when dealing with it. Although everyone’s challenges and stress levels are different and can seem complex, dealing with stress can be simple if we take a moment to do it through a process of conscious thought and consideration.


The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) reported that in 2021/22, 17 million working days in the UK were lost as a result of stress, depression and anxiety.

Sometimes numbers like this are too large to comprehend so it’s easier to tackle them at an organisational or individual level; if we get it right for ourselves and people around us it will start to have an impact on the bigger number.

The first step to getting a handle on stress is to understand what’s causing it. This requires us to be honest with ourselves and can be hard to do.

Stress comes in a variety of shapes and sizes. Most often its either individual stresses, unique to us like our health, relationships or work, or socio-economic stressors like our housing situation, the area we live in or economic pressure.

Stress can be stressful, just thinking about stress can stressful! This is where it helps to try and visualise what is impacting us and how much of an impact it’s having.

A visual model like the ‘Stress Container’ can be really useful. It helps us to see what is causing us stress, its impact, and our overall capacity for dealing with what life throws at us.

Try creating your own stress container. To fill it up and visualise what you are dealing with, ask yourself….

• What am I thinking about the most?
• What is causing me to worry?
• How much space is it taking up in my thoughts?

By answering these questions and putting your stresses in the container, you will start to understand what is causing you to feel the way you do and organise your stress into something more manageable.

Also, by recognising that different stresses take up more space in the container than others, we can now see which ones are having the biggest impact and need addressing.


It’s important not to judge others on their capacity for stress; everyone’s container is a different size. Not everyone can manage the same volume of stress, but everyone, regardless of container size will have a reaction when their container is full. This is called our ‘Stress Signature’.

This differs from one person to another and can sometimes be difficult to spot in others if we don’t know what we are looking for. We almost always know what our own ‘stress signature’ looks like though.

You know that feeling; it might be overwhelming emotions, withdrawal and disengagement, the change in communication style or behaviours. I know mine… my sarcasm levels go through the roof, and I socially withdraw, so I know it’s time to do something about my full container!

Get familiar with your signature, it’s the sign from your body and mind that you shouldn’t ignore and need to take action to manage your stress.


Lets keep stress as simple as possible and use 3 categories to help them make sense:

There are:
• stresses I can control and do something about
• stresses I can’t control but can influence
• stresses I can’t control or influence, but I can choose how to respond to

Over time the category and impacts of your stress will change. For example, a health condition may get worse and fill up the container for a while. Once back under control it takes up less space again, but it might never fully disappear. Or your car might break down and take up loads of space in the stress container until it is fixed, then it’s gone completely.

Once understand the impact of the stress and if we can do something about it, we can start to explore our options.


You may not feel like it, but you control more than you think!

Every day we make thousands of decisions that are totally in our control. These are often small, like what we have for breakfast, what clothes we wear, or the coffee we order, but they all add up.

Some decisions are bigger but still done with limited conscious thought, like what impact will a text rather than a call have or is 5pm the right time to send that email?

These things and many more besides are choices within our control and fall into the same 3 categories as stresses do; things we can control, things we cannot control but can influence and lastly things we cannot control or influence but can choose how we respond to it.

Freud’s iceberg model of consciousness suggests as much as 95% of our behaviours and pre-conceptions are sub-conscious or unconscious. This is true of our decisions too, with most of the choices we make being done on ‘autopilot’ and without truly thinking about the other options, solutions or alternatives we might have.

When we change the decision-making process and apply more conscious thought, we start to gain positive benefits.

Conscious decisions tend to be more positive, solution-focused and are considerate, not reactive, to the situation. This is often great for us but also for the people around us too.


We already know have more choice than we first thought so why not take advantage of it?

There are some simple questions we can ask ourselves when trying to deal what life throws at us.

Try asking yourself:
• Can I control or influence this?
• If I can, then what is my goal?
• What options do I have? (Try sticking to the positive ones!)
• What can help me achieve my goals?
• What can I be grateful for?
• When is the best time to act?
• How is it best to influence people if I need help?
• What policies, processes or systems can I influence to help me out?
• Where can I compromise?
• What are my next steps to move forward?

These questions are simple, but we don’t often stop and think them through. When used properly they are powerful as they help us gain perspective and focus on what we want to achieve.

They also help us find options, alternatives, and ways forward and encourage us to view more choices than we often thought we had.

These questions help us avoid making rash decisions or knee-jerk reactions that are emotionally driven. They help the decision-making process move from the 95% of unconscious and sub-conscious thoughts to the 5% of conscious and considered ones.


But what if I can’t control or influence the issue?

When faced with something that you can’t control or influence, it’s important to recognise that you still have a choice… you can choose how you respond to it.

Think about traffic jams; when stuck in a queue of cars we can do nothing about it. We can choose to shout at the driver of the car in front of us, or to wind down the window, find our favourite tune and sing!

Neither option will help clear the traffic any faster and the stress isn’t going to go away but we can make a decision that helps us take back some control, make a good choice and respond to the situation in a positive way.


Dealing with stress requires individual and collective responsibility, creating a culture that encourages and empowers people to explore their options and take control of them.

When it's done right it can be great for business. It helps explore ways options, solutions and positive outcomes that can be applied when dealing with customers and challenges. Knowing I have more choices than I first thought, that there are people who can help if I influence them positively and that I am not losing sight of my goals are all powerful tools!

It takes practice; there is no magic wand that we can wave to make us all experts at decision-making and dealing with stress! I have been practicing and using these approaches for years and sometimes it’s difficult to not make decisions based on autopilot. If we create an environment that supports the process and we keep trying to explore our options, we will naturally take back more control over time and our customers and the people around us will thank us for it!

Life is made up of hundreds, thousands, even millions of small personal decisions that collectively have a huge impact on how we deal with stress, our outlook on life and contribute to a positive culture around us.