International Stress Awareness Week 2018: Interview with Alex Nunn

It’s International Stress Awareness week this week (5th-9th November 2018), and we have been fortunate enough to talk to some really inspiring people in and around mental health. Today we share our chat with Alex Nunn of Action for Happiness.

Tell us a little bit about yourself / career history / what you do now?


So I’m Alex Nunn and I work at the intersection between personal wellbeing and social change. I’ve worked pretty much exclusively for charities and campaigning organisations as it’s the only sort of work that seemed relevant to me in a world with so much that is deeply unjust and wrong. However, due to some pretty intimate contact with mental health issues in myself and my family, I’ve also developed a really keen interest in personal wellbeing, mindfulness practice and therapy. I now work bridging these two interests at Action for Happiness where I train volunteers around the world to run community courses that focus on improving life-satisfaction, compassion and social trust.

What is Action for Happiness all about?


Action for Happiness is a movement of people taking action for a happier and kinder world. There’s such a wealth of information about wellbeing out there, from the science of positive psychology to studies of mindfulness etc., but rarely in modern society do we get the chance to really stop and tune-in to what matters in life, to connect to others in an authentic and meaningful way, and also to find really practical ways that we can take action. So Action for Happiness is all about doing that – giving people the opportunity to tune-in, connect and take action in the context that matters most to them.


What is your day-to-day role and what is the best part of your job?


I run the Exploring What Matters program at Action for Happiness which invites local volunteers to run a specially developed 8-week community course covering topics like, ‘what really matters in life?’, ‘how can we find peace of mind?’, ‘what makes for good relationships?’, and ‘how can we contribute to a happier world?’. The best part of my job is knowing there are now hundreds of people out there in the world, in places I’ve never been to, who have the tools and skills to make a real difference and change lives, and that we’re all connected together as part of a movement that is much bigger than the sum of its parts.


What does stress look like to you? Signs, symptoms etc.


I’m not sure that looking is actually the best way of identifying stress. For me, it’s something I can really notice in the feelings of my body. Right now as I type this there is tension across the top of my shoulders … there is a tightness in my forearms … and my toes have been fidgeting for probably the last hour or so – to me, these are all signs of internal stress and pressure that I’m currently ignoring whilst trying to ‘get on with my day’.


People manage stress in different ways, when you have experienced stress, how have you managed?


Well, right now I’m going to manage it by stepping away from the screen putting the kettle on and just taking 5 minutes to stand outside in the garden. I really feel that a lot of my sense of constriction and pressure comes from too much time indoors in small spaces when for millions of years of our evolution the larger part of our lives was spent outdoors in the open air, connected to all the patterns of life and nature.  Back in a bit 🙂


We usually think of stress as a negative, but positive stress helps us achieve, motivate, energise and can even boost memory. Tell us about a positive experience you have had with stress.


Yes this reminds me of the essential ‘challenge’ component of the idea of entering a ‘flow’ state, so perhaps for some it is a useful strategy to reframe their stress as a positive achievement booster. However, I worry that would be furthering the core problem.  For me, stress often arises when I feel inadequate to the task at hand – making efforts to improve myself and make myself ‘more adequate’ might make me feel temporarily better, but they also fundamentally reinforce the very structure of inadequacy I had assumed.  For this reason I find it far preferable to enter into a relationship of accepting, allowing and where possible, letting go of stress – often to find that I’m far further on my journey and far more capable then I had been assuming.


In the workplace at Action for Happiness, what wellbeing things do you do to help reduce stress and promote wellbeing for the team?


One thing we do that I think both quite simple and also quite radical is about how we tune-in before any meeting.  Whenever we sit down for a meeting at Action for Happiness, we always have a couple of minutes silent pause for mindfulness practice, and then each have a chance to share how we are doing right now – in a real and authentic way – as well as sharing one thing with grateful for.  It might take up some time, but I feel trusted and understood by my colleagues in a way that is profoundly helpful to our working together.



What do you think needs to change in workplace culture in order to protect mental health, reduce stress and prevent mental ill-health?


I think for a lot of people the workplace can feel like a very separate reality from the rest of their lives – somewhere where we have a particular role to fill, that if we are not feeling like behaving or interacting in a particular way, we need to put on a mask and do it anyway.  That is a profoundly bad idea if we are interested in promoting good mental health.  If we want to create workplaces in which human beings flourish we have to make it ok – genuinely – for us not to be ok, and remove the risk of judgement and the fear to be who we truly are. A good test: is your workplace somewhere where you feel able to answer the question ‘how are you?’ fully and honestly? Or somewhere where you feel the need to wear the mask of ‘fine’?


 What do you think we need to promote happier workplaces?


I think workplace culture often stems down from the top. In an organisation more focused on competition and profit than on collaboration and purpose, it may indeed be quite hard to create and internal culture that is sensitive and human. However there is a lot of great work being done by inspired individuals to set up wellbeing networks meditation groups, mental health days and systems of support within all kinds of organisations. So perhaps all we need to promote is the idea that the actions of the inspired few are indeed relevant to the lives of the many – and indeed may shift organisations purpose and priorities along with it.



This years ‘theme’ for International Stress Awareness Week is ‘Does hi-tech cause high-stress?’  What is your opinion?


Certainly our current wave of technology has exacerbated our patterns of avoidance, our habits of interpersonal comparison, our sense of needing to achieve in order to be worthy of approval and reinforced a sense of isolation and individualism that leave us more stressed, more disconnected and more lonely. Good technology is that which buys you more time by taking over a task you previously had to do with your own body and mind.  A washing machine is an example of great technology, for the time and effort saved can be applied to further connecting with and enjoying life. Technology to be wary of is that which reports itself to be miraculous and innovative but ultimately drains time out of your life rather than adding to it. So I think this a good way to approach it ‘which technology gives me more time to do what I love, and which gives me less?’


Who inspires you and motivates you?


I do a lot of study and practice of Zen Buddhism in the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh, but I think perhaps a more valuable answer is that I try to find what is inspiring about everyone that I interact with. This person in front of me now, what do they have to offer? what do they have to teach?

Finally, what’s on the horizon for you / Action for Happiness?


In a world in which politics, internationalism and even climate and ecology are becoming more fragile and unstable I really appreciate Action for Happiness’ focus on community building work.  We are obviously still a drop in the ocean with just 120,000 members dotted around the globe, but we are an increasingly joined up network and the sense of momentum and mission is building, so it’s a very exciting time to be involved.

Evidence suggests that affirmations can help people to perform better at work. At Be Empowered we believe in using positive affirmations to harness positive thinking. What do you think is a great positive affirmation that will help protect people from negative stress?


You are already everything you wish to become.

A huge thank you to Alex Nunn for talking to us. We hope you learned something new and are as inspired as we are!

If you are worried about stress in your workplace, and you would like to support your team to develop skills in emotional resilience and stress management – find out more about our Stress Management Courses. 


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