Who would know about pressure better than an Olympic champion? Former swimmer Adrian Moorhouse guides you on how to master stress before it overwhelms you

Resource restrictions, performance targets and scrutiny from both the public and media are only the tip of the iceberg for staff navigating the complex dynamics of modern day healthcare.

Concentrating on past achievements and things you’re particularly good at is much more productive than thinking about the last time you did something wrong

These factors make a person’s ability to cope and survive in challenging times extremely difficult. They are being pulled in competing directions and making tough decisions every day. Being able to handle this pressure and stay focused on the things that matter is crucial.

Handling pressure

Pressure is unavoidable in the NHS. At its best, it can exhilarate and energise staff to deliver high performance. But at its worst, pressure can lead to stress and underperformance.

Pressure isn’t always a one-off event. In fact, it’s often an accumulation of everyday problems and tasks that slowly deplete energy resources over time. Whether it’s hitting targets, managing other people or simply an excessive workload, pressure is inherent in the modern working world.

The high performers are those people who can deal with what seems like relentless pressure and actually use it to their advantage. This ability to handle pressure requires three steps:

Recognise when you’re stressed Take a few moments to reflect on how you normally respond to pressured situations. Does it help or hinder your performance? Consider examples of preparing for an important staff meeting or having difficult conversations with patients. Do they fill you with dread and keep you awake at night, or can you manage your emotions effectively?

Identify the sources When do you feel under most pressure? Is it an unconscious source, such as when commuting to work, or are there acute sources of stress that occupy your mind constantly?

Develop suitable coping strategies Once you recognise stressful moments and their sources, you can take control of your responses. Controlling behavioural symptoms can be useful in the short term or for situations that you genuinely can’t change. However, taking more control over the situation itself, rather than adjusting your response, is the most effective way to handle the pressure.

Keeping focused

The fast moving and dynamic nature of the NHS means that distractions and unexpected events are commonplace. But, managers often overcomplicate things by focusing on factors that are not important or are beyond their control.

Control the controllables There are elements of your environment that you can’t influence. Identify what they are and then focus on those that you can control.

Focus on process By focusing on the nuts and bolts of your performance, the outcome will take care of itself. I knew that I wanted to win the Olympics but I got there by focusing on the right strength and conditioning work during training.

Stay in the moment It does not make sense to relive past mistakes, because they cannot be changed. In the same way, thinking too far ahead risks removing your focus from the task in hand.

Focus on the positives Concentrating on past achievements and things you’re particularly good at is much more productive than thinking about the last time you did something wrong.

Dealing with uncertainty

During significant organisational change, a group of senior clinical and corporate leaders from merging organisations were brought together to work through a blend of experiential workshops, one to one coaching and action learning groups. They explored different organisational cultures and investigated new ways of working together to deliver world-class patient care.

Delegates developed tools and techniques to handle pressure and remain focused during the challenging transition. The individual coaching gave leaders specific support for the challenges they were facing.

As a result of the programme, leaders were better equipped to lead at times when they didn’t know all the answers and most of the change was beyond their control.

A blend of qualitative and quantitative data was collected during and after the programme to evaluate behavioural change.

Leaders reported improved:

  • ability to lead change effectively;
  • focus on medium and long-term goals, not just short-term;
  • focus during uncertainty;
  • confidence;
  • coaching and influencing skills;
  • cross-site and functional work.