How I stay calm, by people with very stressful jobs
March 3, 2014 08:12 AM
Chris Wilder: 'Last year, I made a decision that I would discuss only really massive things with my family and try to leave everything else at the front door.' Photograph: Pete Norton/Getty Images Europe
© Anita Chaudhuri
When you're watching your team out on the pitch, your heart might be racing, yet you've got to appear in control. You have to remain calm to make good decisions.
As manager, the whole responsibility for the club is on your shoulders. You've got the chairman and directors to think about, as well as the supporters. You have to deal with injuries, loss of form by key players, their mental state, and things happening in their lives that affect their performance. You have to accept that certain things are out of your control, and know what those are. So I can't control those who officiate the game, I'm not in control of the opposition, I'm not in control of what kind of football my players are going to produce.
The main strategy I have for staying calm is that I'm careful about who I listen to and what I read. When I started out in football (as a trainee at Southampton), there was the odd phone-in show and a few letters to the sports desk of the local paper. Now there are 24-hour sports channels, Twitter, Facebook, forums and, in my region, a phone-in every night. Everybody has an opinion. In the past, I have taken things personally, so I won't go on social media or message boards. Nor will I read comments posted beneath online newspaper articles. You have to stay focused and believe in what you're doing, but you can't be too shut off, either. Drink helps, too; I have been known to find the answer in the bottom of a pint pot.
There was a stage a couple of years ago (as manager of Oxford United) when everything seemed to be going against me. I was bringing it all home. Last year, I made a decision that I would discuss only really massive things with my family and try to leave everything else at the front door. That can be hard when you come home after a heavy defeat, but it's the best way I can handle it.
The headteacher: Jan Shadick, at Lambeth Academy, an inner London comprehensive
Photograph: Getty Images
Education transformed my life. I wasn't academic, I was a plodder. But I had the most fantastic teachers. In a way, that's where the stress and worry of this job comes from, the knowledge that a school can make a huge difference to the lives of young people. I feel a personal responsibility if I see something going wrong. Children are here for only a fixed period; any time that is lost, they'll never get back. Some of our students have traditionally not achieved well or have faced challenges in their lives, so we need to make sure they're as supported as possible.
There are 1,100 people in the building and I need to make sure that every single one of them is doing what they need to be doing. Our cleaners are as valuable as our teaching staff; so are our caretakers and our ICT staff. When I took over, Ofsted ranked us as "requiring improvement"; last year we were awarded "good" and now I'm aiming for "outstanding".
Nothing can prepare you for being responsible for it all, no matter how long you work as a deputy. However, most stressful situations that arise, be it with antisocial behaviour or angry parents turning up, we have systems to deal with them. When I arrived in 2012, I introduced a policy for both adults and children of always remaining calm and non-confrontational. The minute you shout, people don't listen to you; they just focus on the noise you're creating rather than what you're saying. The other thing that helps me remain calm is being highly visible, so that everyone – parents and those in school – can talk to me as soon as something is niggling them. It's when things fester that they create most stress. So I'm at the school gate at the start and end of every day.
I'm an organised person; I won't leave my office without getting everything ready for the next morning. One rule I try to stick to is that I do my work at work; I'll stay late to get it finished but I won't take it home. I also arrive early for work to make sure I'm prepared. I try to make sure I have at least five minutes a day to pause for reflection. And I run. I'm training for the London Marathon at the moment, so I run eight miles, three nights a week. If there's something I need to deal with, I can usually find a solution on my run, and by the time I get home I'm relaxed.
The conciliator: Peter Harwood, at Acas
Photograph: Getty Images
I deal with all the big national disputes, things like the tube strikes, the fuel tanker driver disputes, when the country thought it was going to run out of petrol [in 2012], or if baggage handlers propose a strike before a bank holiday.
Some conciliators don't like to get both parties together at the start because they think there's a risk it might increase the emotion. Personally, I like to get a feel for what the level of emotion is. You're looking for how people are reacting. They're giving you clues as to what the key issues might be.
I explain that I'm not there to judge who's right or wrong, I'm there to conciliate, which is basically to help them reach a resolution. They'll then usually move into separate rooms and I'll go between them. People training to be a conciliator often say they want to learn how to avoid conflict. But you're not actually avoiding conflict – occasionally you're creating it and then managing it. When I report back to the other room, I don't say, "Oh, they're saying there's no way in the world they'll accept what you want, it's a ridiculous demand." I'll say, "Look, they want to try to get a solution but it's going to be difficult."
The most stressful thing is the external pressure, such as when the Federation of Small Businesses was reporting that the two-day tube strike cost the London economy £600m. I've been in Acas for 28 years. The key to remaining calm is to remember that if there's anger in the room, it's not about me. It's not personal. Stress is created when people aren't in control. The point is that I am in control. It helps to remind yourself of that when you're in the thick of it.
A colleague's wife used to say to him: "How come you're so conciliatory at work, and you're never like that at home?" Personally, I'm not like that. I find calm by gardening. It's like meditation for me.
Photograph: Getty Images/fStop
What I do is install underwater gas and oil wells. The whole job involves stress, from getting in a helicopter to fly out to a ship 300km north of Shetland, to getting on the dive ship itself. There's the pre-saturation medical, and then I go into a 2.5m x 7m chamber for a month. I'll be in there with 11 other divers, working in teams of three. You go up and down to the sea bed in a submersible decompression chamber, basically a diving bell, that's lowered to 20m above the sea bed. Then two of you get out of a little hole in the bell and you're "locked out", as we call it, for six hours in the pitch black and off to do your work with all sorts of marine life. I've been doing this for 20 years. Usually I work one month and then have two months off.
There's no room for arguments in this environment. You need to be very tolerant of other people because you're living in such close proximity. You also need to accept the fact that if it goes wrong, you're probably not going to get out alive. You need to go in with your eyes open. There are deaths. We lost a 32-year-old diver a couple of years ago who had a three-week-old daughter. It happens, so you need to be aware of the risks.
You have to create your own space in the chamber. I find escape in watching box sets such as Game Of Thrones and Breaking Bad, and reading a lot. But I'm most chilled out when I'm down there in the sea; I find it a very calming environment, despite the dangers. Being knackered also helps restore calm.
When I'm not at work, I make a big effort to enjoy every day. Even when I'm off duty, I find the sea the most calming thing. Swimming and surfing are my favourite ways to unwind.
The TV guest booker: Tom Fenner, at BBC1's The One Show
Photograph: Getty Images/fStop
I have to come up with a well-known face on the couch every evening for a live interview five nights a week, all the weeks of the year.
Things can go wrong. There's the dreaded situation of the guest dropping out. Guests need to arrive at the studio by 6.15pm at the latest. My worst-case scenario happened when at 5pm, the publicist phoned up to say, "Sorry, your guest is throwing up into a bucket, they're not coming." We managed to find a replacement.
The best route to calm is to be organised, and also to treat it like a game, at least that's what I've found, and I've been working on the show since 2007. I have a plan A, a plan B and a plan C. Some things are beyond your control. Five minutes before the show, I've had the publicist for a Hollywood A-lister tell me, "I've never seen them in such a bad way, I don't think they can go on." When that happened, I had to find out what the problem was and then reassure and coax them into the studio. Which I managed to do. People have their own demons, which have a habit of appearing when they're faced with going on live TV. Sometimes guests turn up the worse for wear, and you immediately have to make that judgment: is this suitable, do we put that person on or not? We've never come to grief with anything like that. Experience teaches you that taking a philosophical approach is best. I always bear in mind that there's another show tomorrow, and the day after that – there's no point in getting too precious about stuff.
The A&E consultant: Dr Simon Eccles, at Guy's and St Thomas' hospitals, London
Photograph: Getty Images
There are two types of stressful situation that arise in my job. The first is where you've got someone who's seriously unwell and they're not responding to treatment. The other is during the peak hours of A&E. On weekends, we're seeing twice as many patients and it can be awful, really tense. The worst is when someone dies under difficult circumstances. In many cases people die in emergency departments under conditions that are not enormously stressful for the doctors because you know you've done absolutely everything you could. Then there are the other instances which are horrid for everyone.
One of the worst I've dealt with was a car accident about four or five years ago involving a family returning from a concert. In the interests of speed, we had the mother and the youngest child sent to us, and the father and oldest child were at a different hospital. I ended up trying to explain to the remaining relatives that the child had died and that the mother was critically unwell.
There's a moment as you walk in the room when everybody looks up and all you can see is hope. They want you to tell them it's going to be all right and your job, sadly, is to explain to them that it isn't. It doesn't matter how often you do it, it doesn't get any easier. You go home and you hug your family that bit harder.
One of the best antidotes to that situation is to have people around you with whom you can share the stresses of the day. I can't tell you how much it helps to have that means of letting off steam. I try to remember what I love about the job rather than the stress. I'm having conversations with people that they will probably never have with any other human being, and that's a great privilege.
In order to create more calm in my life, I made a somewhat drastic decision. I changed hospital, so now my commute is a 12-minute walk from home. It compensates enormously for the stress and the long hours. It also means I can play with my three-year-old son at both ends of the day.
I think at its most chaotic, the stress in A&E is about me not having control. So I think it's important to have a hobby where you do have complete control, and mine is restoring classic cars. I have spent a ridiculous amount of time fixing up a 1967 and a 1969 Rover. I rent a garage for a sum of money that makes my eyeballs bleed. The other thing that helps restore calm is going to the pub after a shift and chatting and laughing about some of the daft things that have happened during the day. They probably seem weird to people on the outside, but it helps to reorganize the brain.