The working week is tough. Anyone knows that. There’s data to show it too.
I’m sat in a coffee shop with Jenna Collins of Firstbeat Technologies. Why? Because I’m interested in Heart Rate Variability, and their business is built on measuring it.
HRV is an indicator of our stress levels.
Our hearts don’t beat like metronomes.
If you need to move to action, then your heart rate speeds up. If you are only resting, it slows again.
When you breathe in, it speeds up. When you breathe out, it slows down. It changes based on what you need.
How adept your body is at moving between these states is measured by your Heart Rate Variability.
As a therapist, this interests me because of Polyvagal Theory. This describes how our nervous systems are set up to deal with the presence or absence of threat.
We have three autonomic states – restoration, fight or flight, and shutdown.
Restoration is when all feels safe and okay. We can socially engage and hold eye contact. Our bodily systems are doing their job without interruption.
Fight or flight is when we feel panicky. We may feel some danger or threat. Energy increases in the body. The heart rate increases. The tummy gets butterflies.
Shutdown is when we are drained of energy. We are not engaging with the world and nor do we want to. It is our oldest response to a sense of danger. Think of the lizard that freezes. This freeze response happens when we are in shutdown.
A person who thinks of themselves as anxious will often be in fight or flight even in the absence of danger. Even though they are safe and at rest, their systems are still on high alert.
So their Heart Rate Variability (HRV) is low.
Someone who doesn’t have this sense of chronic anxiety will instead move between these autonomic states flexibly. So their HRV will likely be high.
HRV helps us get a sense of the stress a person is under, and how easily they get back to a restoration state.
At Firstbeat Technologies, they ask volunteers, usually employees of their business clients, to wear a heart monitor over a number of days.
It allows organisations to be proactive about where the stress points are in their business.
Maybe everyone is getting along fine, except staff in the warehouse. So the organisation knows to step in and make things better there.
Jenna showed me some typical data reports, including her own. Each report maps HRV on a graph.
In one report, I spotted a jump in HRV. Something good had happened for that person.
“What happened there?” I asked.
“Oh, they went to the gym there”, she said.
The graphs seemed to show that the working week was a nightmare. I even commented on it.
The levels of stress people faced concerned me.
I wondered how they compared to the weekend. This would surely prove my point about how detrimental work practices are. So I asked if she had data for that.
“In fact, we have identified the most stressful day of the week”, she said.
They had conducted a study to find out, using the Firstbeat database.
Naturally I wondered what day it might be. Monday morning perhaps? Or the Wednesday hump? Maybe even Friday when people had been working solidly for five days.
Yet the answer was something I hadn’t considered at all.
The answer was Saturday.
The moment we break free from the clutches of our employers, yet our stress levels go through the roof.
Finally, we get leisure time and autonomy over our lives. Yet somehow, we give ourselves more stress than our bosses do.
Think of your own Saturday. Is it stressful? What do you do of a Saturday that makes life harder than being at work?
The good news is that this is your day. So you have a level of control over how it pans out.
How are you nourishing yourself rather than stressing yourself? What causes you the biggest Saturday headaches? How can you limit or remove those?
Suppose your Saturday was no longer stressful. Suppose it was relaxing and nourishing and even fun!
How would you know? What would you be doing?
Take yourself through that preferred Saturday. From the moment you wake up to the moment you get back into bed that evening, what do you notice that is different?
Think of a Saturday that was nourishing and restful? What happened? Can you create more Saturdays just like that?
For those who work Monday to Friday, like those on the graphs I saw, Saturday is your day.
Work is tough enough without your weekends being even tougher. How will you change your Saturdays to make them a day of restoration and enjoyment?
Check out this interesting article from FirstBeat about what HRV is and why it matters.Alun Parry is Director of The Liverpool Psychotherapy Practice