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Dreaming in total darkness


May 16, 2018

Stress should make up a trinity of the inevitable alongside death and taxes. If not held in check it can eventually lead to the former and like the latter it is all about reaching a manageable level.

For a significant proportion of the UK workforce that level of manageability has long since passed. That is why the Mental Health Foundation has made ‘Stress’ the focus of this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week, which begins on Monday, May 14.

According to the Health & Safety Executive, 526,000 people suffered work-related stress, depression or anxiety in 2016 / 17. In terms of the effects on productivity, 12.5 million working days were lost in the same period, that’s an average of 23.9 days lost per person affected.

We have all experienced stress and its attendant effects, being placed under pressure is normal and, in the right amount, a healthy aspect of working life. From a psychological point of view, it can wire the body and the brain into action, it can energise and overcome challenging situations.

Alex Hirst, Co-Founder of The Hoxby Collective

That was certainly the early experience of Alex Hirst, co-founder of The Hoxby Collective.

“I was on fire as far as I was concerned. I was doing really good work, work I enjoyed. I was adding value to clients and internally. I felt like I was integral to the creative agency where I worked.”

The onset of the negative sides of stress is slow and subtle. On the surface, Alex was eliciting an entirely beneficial reaction to his stress levels. He was harnessing what the American Psychological Association defines as acute stress. The key to managing and making acute stress your ally is to give the body and mind a chance to return to a resting state. The problems can come when you gorge on the stress.

As Alex explains,  “I enjoyed it and I fed off it. I had no objections to leaving the house at 6 am to get into the office for 7.15 am and then return home 12 hours later. I just didn’t have a problem with that, psychologically I felt okay because I felt I was adding value and because I was enjoying myself.

“I subconsciously rationalised the fact that I was doing a good job against the fact that physically I couldn’t do anymore. I couldn’t possibly work more than the 60 hours a week I was doing. I was maximising my contribution during that time, that’s how I rationalised it. Ultimately I got to a point where I thought, ‘where do I go from here?’. I carried on doing what I was doing and never really answered that question.”

The American Psychological Association states that acute stress originates from the “demands and pressures of the recent past and anticipated demands and pressures of the near future. Acute stress is thrilling and exciting in small doses, but too much is exhausting.” Alex found the resting state that is required to recharge from periods of acute stress ever more elusive,

“It took my wife saying, ‘Alex, you are a shadow of your former self.’ I wasn’t really present. I was finding that my work became all-consuming. Where previously I was able to switch off, now I couldn’t. And that was the point where I truly approached burnout. I couldn’t switch off, I couldn’t find relaxation, I couldn’t find emotion, either positive or negative. I couldn’t find joy in happy things and equally I struggled with feeling emotions in the opposite direction. I put it down to not really being present anymore.”

As the mental health charity Mind reminds us, “Stress isn’t a psychiatric diagnosis, but it’s closely linked to your mental health.” If untreated, stress can cause mental health problems, and make existing problems worse. It can also precipitate a darkening cycle where those mental health problems, in turn, exacerbate your stress levels.

Luckily Alex was mindful enough to recognise the warning signs and take action, “I did some research into burnout and the advice was to take a break, take time some time off, go on holiday. So we did. We went away Spain for a week.

“I can’t really tell you anything about that holiday other than from what I have seen in photos. I don’t really have any memory of it. And I think again that was because I wasn’t particularly present.

“When I came back I remember feeling no different to when I had left, emotionally I was still in the same muted place. I remember thinking that the whole week had been a waste of time, nothing had changed in my mental state.”

Although the results were not immediately apparent, Alex’s awareness of his condition led to him sitting down with Lizzie Penny for a conversation that would ultimately lead to the foundation of Hoxby. To this day understanding and respecting each other’s workstyle and emotional needs remain key to the purpose that drives the community forward.  “It was in recognising that nothing had changed that I realised that I had to make some more fundamental interventions to my lifestyle and to my psychological contract with work.

“At that moment I decided I was going to leave behind what I was doing and start something of my own, something I could be accountable for. And that’s when I sat down and talked to Lizzie [Penny, Hoxby’s co-founder]. She talked about the challenges of managing family life around work and we both hit upon the fact that we were craving autonomy and that if we had the freedom to work on our terms we would probably be a lot happier.

“If we had the right to be judged on what we did rather than the hours that we worked then we would feel happier as well. So that was the initial seed of an idea for The Hoxby Collective.”

As the Mental Health Foundation is emphasising this week, stress is so often an early red flag for what could be a progressive mental health problem.

It is too often inconvenient to acknowledge the signs and even harder to talk about the underlying problems. Alex believes it is imperative to act on that red flag, “I think it’s really important to pay attention to those things. You must make interventions when you encounter the negative aspects of stress in order to prevent longer-term burnout or worse, mental health problems.”

Alex’s negative experience of stress informs so much of his thinking about the future of work and, he emphasises the importance of a mindful sense of your interior self,

“I very much look at that period in my life as a time when I recognised that it was my own expectation of what success or what “good” looked like that forced me into that place.

“It was only when I recognised that those ideas were coming from me and that I had the ability to change, that I made the interventions I needed to make. That’s a lot about knowing yourself and finding work that motivates you and gives you the ability to react positively to stressful situations. It’s an authentic feeling, you can’t fake it. If something is stressing you out in negative way it’s because it fundamentally contradicts your values or your belief system or purpose.”

From the outside, leaving the stresses caused by his all-consuming role at a creative agency to launch an entirely new company based on an entirely unique concept feels like the proverbial jumping from the frying pan. However, Alex’s interior experience speaks to the very heart of how we are encouraged to approach stress and should be required reading for, well, anyone.

“Stress is an interesting concept. We can be put in a stressful situation that makes you feel uncomfortable and you can be put in a stressful situation that makes you feel energised. It all depends on the lens through which you are viewing that stress, whether that is something that you want to react positively to or react negatively to.

“The reason I say that is because I think the stresses that came with starting Hoxby all felt like positive stresses. I was doing things that were difficult but I was okay with that psychologically because it was furthering my purpose and it was moving me in the right direction. It actually gave me the energy to face those stressful situations.”

That resting place that is an absolute necessity for coping with acute stress and ensuring it never becomes chronic is no longer elusive for Alex,

“I am now so much better able to switch off. My psychological contract with work is different. I measure my success by the overall success of Hoxby and the connection I have with my family, how present I am with them. That is my benchmark now.”

If you are concerned that you are developing a mental health problem you should seek the advice and support of your GP as a matter of priority. If you or anyone you know has been affected by any of the issues raised by this article, you are not alone. Below are details on services that offer help and support directly to people with mental health problems:

  • The Samaritans offer emotional support 24 hours a day - in full confidence. Call 116 123 - it’s FREE or email

  • Call the Mind infoline on 0300 123 3393 (UK landline calls are charged at local rates, and charges from mobile phones will vary considerably). Or email

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