Busy is the new Black: tips to manage stress at work

11 Oct 2016 Uncategorized

The modern workplace is a source of constant change, stimulation and challenge. For many people in the workplace, busy is the new black!

Are you working on overdrive and can’t seem to get any balance in your life?  Do you find yourself having to constantly switch your attention to juggle competing tasks? Do you end your day feeling totally drained and feel there is not enough time in the day?  Do you neglect to look after your health? Do you find yourself often saying “I am busy!”? Then please read on…

In this blog, Nicole Plotkin, Psychologist at the Emotional Health Centre in Melbourne, will share some tips to stay calm, manage your stress and keep a clear head – even when it feels like chaos is all around you.

My interest in the topic of busyness at work was first sparked when I noticed that so many people around me: my clients, my colleagues, friends and family all described their typical day as busy.  I noticed too, that being busy was my normal default response and I did not like the feeling that I was falling down a rabbit hole.  It was no longer a good enough excuse for not looking after myself and not having time for the important people in my life.   I wasn’t going to just accept this for myself or the people around me.  This was not ok.

Lesson from emergency services about managing workplace stress:

 I have always been fascinated by the fact paramedics are trained to come out of their ambulance calmly and not to rush to an accident scene, to allow them to think clearly and see the whole picture. I have come to realise this clear headed approach applies to ‘most work’ situations.  We all need to be able to step back and take a birds-eye view of our situation to make informed and rational decisions.

Alarm bells: When people are too scared to be anything ‘but busy’ when it comes to modern work environments

Workplace stress does not usually discriminate.  I work with a lot of medical, allied health professionals and people from all walks of life in both a counselling and training capacity.  It alarms me how many people feel they are too busy to take a break at work or feel guilty when they do.  One nurse told me she didn’t even have time to stop, check in with herself and slow down her breathing whilst she was on duty because there was too much to do.  Just like her, many employees (and you may relate) spend their days in a state of perpetual stress and report symptoms of anxiety on a daily basis.  Even the thought of slowing down, walking rather than jogging to the next client, customer, patient or task can make some people feel they would be wasting time.   But really to think clearly and to reduce errors, this is exactly what is needed.

I know it is a cliché…but to ‘stop and smell the roses’ in whatever work you do is necessary.  I call it the pinch technique (just like children and some adults do when they are sleeping to check whether or not they are dreaming), where you STOP and review your current situations: e.g. check your breathing rate, energy level, how fast you are moving and where your thoughts and emotions are at, etc.

Cold statistics: Negative impact of Busyness on Mental Health and Quality of Life

But what effect is this culture of ‘Busyness’ having on our working lives?

Did you know…sixty-five percent of Australian employees report moderate to high stress levels that not only impact work productivity but day-to-day functioning and quality of life. If that’s not scary enough, 2/3 of the world’s employees feel overwhelmed and only 13% of employees around the world are actually engaged at work (Bersin, 2014).

Where was I? – Busyness and poor attention

More and more people in the workplace struggle to focus their attention on one thing for an extended or even short period, due to working in a fast paced, hyper-kinetic workplace – where their attention is constantly shifting.  “So what?” you may say. But this is where ‘use it or lose’ it applies to brain functioning… if you don’t work on your attention than your capacity to focus will diminish, leading to an increase in adults presenting with attentional issues and ADT (Attention Deficit Traits).   The negative consequences of poor attention are:  decreased productivity, increased errors, difficulties with working memory and more accidents in the workplace.

 5 tips to shift from feeling busy to being calm:

Step #1  Energy boosters (20-60 minutes per day)

A wise woman put a spotlight on this for me recently, and reminded me that you can’t continue to put all of your energy into what you do, without replenishing your own energy and expect to thrive.  As a mum, wife, friend, psychologist, trainer and business owner it is so easy to forget I am not a superwoman and need to stop for fuel, otherwise I will burn out.  This is why daily energy boosters/ self-care activities is so essential.

We are all different in terms of what energises us. You may not have to think too hard to work out what fuels you.  It may just require reflecting back over the last week, but for others it may require looking back over months or years to highlight the activities that have energised you in the past. This is such an important part of your self-care.

Remember to start the day planning the energy booster + self-care activities that will work for you!

The good news is energy boosters can be done in 5-10 minute blocks, they do not need to be done all in one go.  Any exercise, including a quick power-walk in the middle of the day may also be great way to clear your head and energise you.   There are so many ways to energise yourself: meditation, mindfulness activity, prayer, eat healthy food or catch-up with a friend. You just need to make it a priority for you.

Step # 2  Change your language

 Busy is a dirty four-letter word that needs to be banished!

 The problem with saying you are always busy is that it will not be great if you are speaking with a prospective client and want to show you are feeling in control.

Saying “I’m busy, overworked…..”:


  • make you feel more overwhelmed by focussing on all the challenges and tasks you are faced with
  • imply you have too much on your plate – not capable on taking on more
  • lose its potency when repeated
  • promotes a culture that being ‘busy ‘is normal


  • do much for your personal brand
  • instill confidence in your ability to stay calm and manage your work

Replace busy with one of the following statement:

  • I have a solid client base
  • I am having a productive day
  • I need a break to get some clarity on some of my projects
  • I have a steady flow of work
  • I have a lot on, but excited about where it is going
  • I expect things to slow down when X is completed

 The reality is that it is hard to find a professional who doesn’t feel stressed, busy, tired, or overworked. Though, omitting such responses from your vocabulary, except when they’re truly needed, will make you feel calmer and appear more capable.

 Step # 3  Reflection time – reflect on your day and declutter your mind!

 A reflective writing exercise that has helped so many of my clients to monitor and provide an emotional compass to direct their efforts: 

Put 10 mins aside to check in with yourself each day and keep a log/ diary of your mood for the day and document what has worked and not worked (list all the contributing thoughts, statements, activities, experiences and moments) that has made your day what it was.

This is a habit that can help you declutter, give your perspective and highlights what energizes you.  It is a very good tool to look back over your week and see that not every day is bad! It is also a great way to get things out of your head!

 Add in a few drops of gratitude – list 3 or more things you are grateful for each day to foster a positive growth mindset.

Step # 4  Mindful work and mindful play

Instead of doing a bit of everything and a lot of nothing, use all of your attention (all of your senses) to focus and do one thing wholeheartedly.

It is important to realise that Multiskiling is really multi-shifting.  Make a planned decision to set time to work (or play) on set activities and commit to the time allocated as best as you can.  Also try to be engage and be in the moment when undertaking the activity.  This is important to decrease the development of attentional issues, e.g. Attention Deficit Trait (ADT) that are a bi-product of juggling too many tasks and not giving yourself the time to do each task properly.

Why not try out the free Headspace meditation trial (10 mins of meditation for 10 days!): www.headspace.com

 Step # 5   Its OK to Set boundaries!

Most of us feel overwhelmed because we don’t acknowledge the limitations of our work capacity, and leave ourselves vulnerable to ‘burning out’. Being able to say ‘no’, once in a while, in a respectable manner does not reflect your incompetency, it will however communicate to your colleagues, manager, team what you currently have capacity for.

Changing point:

Changing your relationship with how you pace yourself at home and at work takes time.  So start of by choosing one of the steps outlined here to help you start to move from feeling busy to feeling calm, more focussed and energised! Please remember when you try to change too much too quickly, the changes are short-lived and you will end up where you started.

Take the time to change, one step at a time.

Contributor: Nicole Plotkin is the principal psychologist at the Emotional Health Centre, who works with individuals and workplaces to work on wellness: resilience, mental health and stress management.

Are you hooked on technology?

4 Oct 2016 Uncategorized

Mobile phone dependency increasing at alarming rates….

The Ebola-like spread of mobile dependency throughout the world crosses the gender divide, affecting all age groups and statistics are confounding.  According to mobile app startup, Mobifolio: the average adult checks their phone  110 times a day or once every 13 minutes, while for most,  usage peaks to once every 6 seconds in the evening.  The creators of the app, Break Free, helps its users maintain a ‘controlled digital lifestyle’ by monitoring phone and app usage.  The approach is not heavy handed – when usage goes up, Sata, a friendly Buddhist monk- like character gives users a gentle warning to ‘chill’.

Closer to home at the Emotional Health Centre, Psychologist, Nicole Plotkin sees mobile dependency as commonplace, with dire consequences for some:  ‘The danger is that users can be too dependent on their phones for social interaction and self esteem.  The phone becomes a vehicle for staying connected to others.  So if you don’t get the anticipated number of text messages/emails in an evening you can be left feeling quite low’.

Social Connectedness vs social Isolation

Ironically the device which enables social connection in some, can also become a tool for avoiding social contact in individuals with social anxiety.  Now almost everything can be organised online – from pizza to University study and this creates another kind of dependence for those who are not socially adept.  An extreme version of social withdrawal in Japan is coined ‘Hikikomori’, individuals who drop out of society and live a hermit-like existence.  Reasons for Hikikomori are complex but profiles of many show that within their secluded existence, many are highly dependent on technology.  Here in Australia our rapidly advancing digital technology allows for similar avoidance and escapism in vulnerable individuals.

Limitations of our digital fixation…

The negative consequences of our digital fixation can be considerable.  Recent studies show that artificial light from tablet devices when used at night may affect the body’s ability to produce melatonin – the sleep hormone, contributing to sleep disorders.  While at a practical level using digital devices for long periods of time takes focus away from important things – work, study, and family and dependency on the mobile for social connectedness can contribute to anxiety and depression.  Nicole also sees a more insidious side effect of the mobile age: ‘One important aspect of   personal wellbeing involves an individual’s ability to engage themselves in the moment doing whatever allows them to do that- be it engaging in work or a hobby, or learning a new skill.  But digital devices like mobile phones can sometimes take us away from the present, so that we are forever waiting for our next fix – for the next text message from a friend or for that email.  So our consciousness is being directed forward, away from the present.’

Ask yourself: do you control your mobile or does it control you?

The signs of possible ‘technology addiction’?

  • Inability to turn off technology, always connected
  • Loss of interest in hobbies and social interactions
  • Keeping devices near or at easy access all the time
  • Online interactions dictate your mood and sleep patterns

Begin a regular Detox process:

Start by setting boundaries and recognising when phone/internet use is useful versus habitual.

Remember to take a break from technology – So instead of always taking your mobile with you on an outing with friends, you could leave it at home.  Or if that is too onerous, you could start small by leaving your phone at home when going out to get milk instead of having it with you.

Communicate detox with others – Once you decide on your strategy for your preferred level of technology use, try telling friends, family or colleagues of your plan, e.g. that you are only checking email at certain times of day so  they don’t expect their usual quick response.  Then try turning phone/ IPad off for certain hours during the day.

If you are still hooked on technology and it is interfering with your quality of life, it is important to reach out and ask for help or share strategies with others.

Transforming adversity through resilience

2 Aug 2016 Uncategorized

Stress. “Yeah yeah I know, it’s bad for you… I have heard it a thousand times before!”

Yet despite our acknowledgement of its negative effects on our health, stress has become an ever-growing theme in our modern lives. The threat of terrorism, economic uncertainty and the rapid pace of organisational change have increased our stress levels to an all-time high. In fact it has gotten to the point where one in five of us will suffer from mental illness at some point in our lives.

Reading the above paragraph, one might think I am saying that stress is a bad thing. Not quite. Short bursts of stress can enable heroic acts, encourage creative solutions or drive us to perform at our best. But for those of us living complicated lives where stress seems to be unavoidable, I ask, ‘what makes the difference between those who are worn down by stress and those who thrive on it?’ What separates a person who suffers deeply from trauma from one who claims to be positively and profoundly changed by it? Resilience.

So what is Resilience?

This is a question that resilience researchers have been studying for decades. Resilience has gone by many definitions, most commonly your ability to ‘bounce back’. Others have called it your ability to withstand or successfully adapt to adversity and then grow from your experience. There are courses out there like “Bullet-Proof Your Staff in 30 days” which imply that a person can quickly be ‘made resilient’ by adding a little of this and subtracting some of that. The good news is that resilience certainly can be cultivated! However, each person’s path will be exquisitely unique to them. Some have likened human resilience to an eco-system, implying that there are many interacting and dynamic elements involved that are particular to you. As we are constantly interacting with our environment, it would be more accurate to say we are more like an eco-system embedded within other eco-systems.

So bringing things back to work then, if your manager gives you 10 times more work than you can currently handle and then ships you off to a resilience course, chances are it might be of little benefit. If not somewhat insincere. The problem you see, began upstream. Pushing back on your workload might do more for your resilience in this instance than anything else.

So what is the first step needed to become more resilient?

Resilience has many layers. For the moment, a good start might be to recognise that we have mental, emotional and physical needs, and not least of all, a need for purpose and connection with others. Each of these is constantly in flux and it is YOU who are most responsible for influencing them.  I have included some questions to shine a light on these different areas:

Mental  Body

  • We have been blessed with an imagination and boundless creativity! Are your thoughts and imagination making you more or less resilient? Who is in charge of your beliefs? Are they ‘hand-me downs’ or have you chosen them?
  • Do you feel like a victim of circumstance? Or a victor?
  • Do you notice how your thoughts affect you? How they influence your emotions & behaviours?

Emotional Body

  • Which emotions do you struggle with? In which circumstances do they appear? With family members? Friends? Your boss?
  • How do you deal with extreme (e.g. rage, grief) emotions? Do you keep a lid on them? Express them to friends? Through art?
  • What strategies do you use to cope with difficult emotions? Do you keep a lid on them? Don’t talk about them? Drink alcohol to deal with them?

Physical Body

  • How do you feel emotionally when you are under-slept? How many hours of sleep do you need to meet your daily challenges?
  • Which foods / drinks add to your energy levels? Which sap them?
  • What do you do when you have physical signs of stress in your body such as: muscle tension, headaches, raising heart, rapid breathing + stomach churning?

Purpose / Meaning

  • Do you believe you have a calling in life? Have you reconciled crises or tragedies that you have lived through? Does your life feel richer or poorer for them?
  •  Are you living according to your values? What can you do to align your life to them?

Connection to others

  • Who can you turn to during a crisis? What can you do to foster relationships with people at work or home? What is the first step you need to take?
  • If suffering with mental illness, which community or support group can you turn to?

Want to learn to live a more resilient lifestyle and enhance resilient thinking?

Please contact us to find out more on how  resilience can be enhanced at home and in the workplace on: 9584-5150.

EHC offer a range of services to enhance resilience from workplace resilience workshops to individual counselling and coaching sessions.

Also stay tuned for more blogs on resilience!

Learning outside the box – Brain training and Cogmed program

3 Jul 2016 Uncategorized

Regardless of age or learning abilities, there is evidence now that brain training/ learning new skills creates new pathways in the brain!

Do you want to maximize your brain?

We all learn differently.  The field of neuropsychology’s understanding of learning has profoundly shifted over the last ten years or so.  Too many people believe they cannot change how they learn or improve their capacity to learn.  You just need to read the Norman Doidge’s book the Brain that to see case studies of how intensive cognitive training can significantly improve a person’s learning capacity.

People with learning disabilities (such as ADHD and dyslexia) are often average to above average intelligence but need to be taught in a different way to blossom.

 What is cognitive ‘brain’ training?

  • Cognitive brain training consists of specific tasks people undertake and practise with the intention of learning and strengthening cognitive functions, such as memory and information processing speed.
  • Often referred to as a brain workout or brain gym!

 Did you know?

Brain training can assist to:

  • Strengthen motor memory
  • Delay dementia, Alzheimer’s and other neurological disorders
  • Improve attention (including individuals with ADHD)
  • Not just accept learning difficulties, but address underlying issues.
  • Acquire new skills


Brain training at EHC – Cogmed training

Cogmed training is an evidence based memory training program for children through to adults to improve working memory.

The training incorporates individual coaching support by a registered therapist (psychologist at EHC) in conjunction with a 5 week computer-based program.


Enrolments open for 2015

Contact us on (03) 9584 5150.

Work and life success and psychological flexibility

3 Feb 2016 Uncategorized

Did you know your ability to adapt to change, succeed in the workforce and live resiliently, is based on your psychological flexibility?

So what is psychological flexibility? 

Good question. It can be defined as extent to how a person can: 1) adapts to fluctuating demands, 2) reconfigures mental resources, 3) shifts perspective, and 4) balances competing desires, needs and life domains  (Kashdan and Roterburg, 2010).


Learning psychological flexibility will allow you to not just cope with stress but to also do more of what you value/ what is important to you.

 How can it be enhanced?

People can learn to be more ‘psychological flexible’ by learning how to be present with difficult thoughts and emotions and to accept ourselves as we are, not as we think we should be. For instance, it is valuable accept that it is normal to feel nervous before a job interview, presentation or a big event. There is not benefit in avoiding situations, in an attempt to ward ourselves from having difficult thoughts and emotions.  The tendency to avoid personal discomfort at any cost, only leads to narrowing your opportunities is life (particularly work opportunities and important discussions) and also tends to increase the  frequency, strength and duration of negative thoughts and emotions (Harris,2009 ).

So learning to be more psychologically flexible is not about making life easier or more pleasant, but more about working towards a life worth living. It will allow you to not just cope with stress but to also do more of what you value/ what is important to you.

At EHC we use the framework of ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) to assist clients to learn to become more psychological flexible.

Workplace Mental Health: promoting Workplace Wellness

15 Jan 2016 Uncategorized

Mental Health at Work: Issues with Workplace Wellness in Working Environments

Let’s be frank, we do need to nip mental health issues in the bud. The importance of having a healthy workforce is not a new issue. Yet we have reached a tipping point in terms of escalating cost of mental health issues, particularly in relation to workplace mental health. Did you know that the impact in Australia in terms of poor mental health of employee is a whopping $10.9B OH&S issue per annum (PwC, 2014).

Growing concerns about mental health at work

“Industrial machinery has never been safer and OH&S policy never more progressive”. Yet, progress in technology can do little to detect the impaired cognitive judgement of a worker who is under the spell of a depressive episode. Or who might be drinking at work to numb the pain of a recent separation from his wife. Even though workplace health & safety legislation now applies equally to the psychological dimension of health, it seems that most employers continue to be reactive in their approaches, often discovering signs of mental illness in the workplace when it is a bit too late for effective measures.

The psychological hazard of workplaces are growing, as are Absenteeism and poor productivity

Deteriorating Workplace Mental Health in working environments is not good for any employer’s bottom line.

However, if you are employed as a crane truck driver for a construction company and management have cut staff levels, intensifying your workload, putting more strain on capabilities and you are feeling insecure about your next shift, then we are no longer talking about morale or productivity, but rather your health and safety in this role. A manager who is educated about psychosocial risk factors might notice the sleepless eyes, sluggish movements and sad demeanour of his crane truck driver. He might then suspect impaired concentration and intervene before a workplace injury or fatality occurs. This example is backed up by mounting evidence that modern-day working pressures can have adverse occupational health & safety (Quinlan & Bohle, 2009) effects and increase the risk of workplace injuries.

Preventative vs Reactive workplace measures for Workplace Mental Health

Did you ever hear the poem “Ambulance Down in the Valley”? It presents an OH&S analogy of a farm house on a cliff top who had an ambulance in the valley (in case there was an accident!) instead of a fence around the perimeter of the house? This is often the case for managing mental health issues, reactive measures are in place ahead of preventive strategies. The application of proven preventative strategies for reducing the likelihood for the issues taking flight is essential to creating a psychologically health workplace.

Model for creating psychologically healthy workplaces

At EHC we refer to our model of promoting Psychologically Healthy Workplaces as Working Wellness. Using this model we:

  • Assess the underlying reasons for staff turnover, sick leave or stress claims
  • Review staff culture and emotional climate
  • Identify contributing positive and/or negative workplace practices and behaviours
  • Design workplace changes and programs to minimise harm and improve workplace wellbeing, where applicable
  • Educate staff to improve detection of warning signs of mental illness, decrease stigma of mental illness, foster resilience through enhancing training and important of stress management
  • Support employees to address issues and utilise resources to manage mental health issues

Mental Health in the Workplace – Where do we go from here?

Employers need to view the psychological health and wellbeing of their staff as core to business, rather than relegating it to the bottom of the list or only reacting when problems arise. The priority needs to become one of embedding protective factors in the workforce, investing in early intervention (e.g. identifying psychosocial risk factors, providing employee coaching and counselling support) and widening the discussion about employee wellbeing to include issues of mental health. Once again, if this is viewed as a fluffy ‘nice to have’ rather than an Occupational Health & Safety issue, then it is unlikely that meaningful behavioural change (& reductions in workplace incidents) will happen.

Is your workplace in need of a mental health adjustment?

If you are interested in learning how to prevent psychological stress injuries, identify the early warning signs of mental illness or better yet, be proactive about cultivating ‘Workplace Wellness’ at your workplace, then contact the Emotional Health Centre (EHC) on (03) 9584 5150.


Contributors from Emotional Health Centre (EHC): Nicole Plotkin, Psychologist/ Director and Greg Hack, Psychologist and trainer.

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