Stress is the invisible killer and we need to find ways to manage it or suffer the consequences.
The Government is so concerned about the endemic that it has designated tomorrow National Stress Awareness Day. Britain workforce is suffering from a stress endemic that is so serious in some sectors that the Government’s Health and Safety Executive (HSE) is making direct approaches to companies, including many in the City, to force them to tackle the issue.
Tomorrow is National Stress Awareness Day, organised by the International Stress Management Association UK, and the public is invited to join the debate at a London conference (for more information on joining the debate go to www.hse.gov.uk/stress).
About half a million people in Britain experience work-related stress at a level they believe is making them ill, according to the HSE. And a total of 12.8m working days were lost to stress, depression and anxiety in 2003/4. Stress leads to sickness absence, high staff turnover and poor performance of a business.
Stress is the psychological and physical response to the demands of daily life that exceed a person’s ability to cope successfully. Stress is characterised by fatigue, sleep disorders, irritability, constant worrying and panic attacks. Depression often accompanies stress and it can also lead to more serious illnesses such as heart disease and harmful health behaviour such as drinking too much alcohol or smoking.
The HSE has created a set of Management Standards that are effectively guidelines for employers to manage workplace stress and it expects all companies to implement them. Companies that fail to manage stress leave themselves open to serious reputational issues such as litigation in employment tribunals and also prosecution in court: under British law, employers have a “duty of care” to protect the health, safety and welfare of all employees while at work. They also have to assess and take measures to control the risks arising from hazards at work including work-related stress.
But whilst the onus may be on employers legally what can we do to help ourselves to be healthier and happier at work? Stress is the way our bodies deal with potentially dangerous situations and our ancestors depended on it to outrun predators. It is often called the “fight or flight” response and was a temporary situation. However, the sort of stress we experience these days, such as sitting in a traffic jam or during yet another signal failure on London Underground, produces long term stress which raises blood pressure and causes the body to release substances that are not healthy over longer periods and weaken the autoimmune system. Bereavement, relationship breakdown and job loss are also contributors to stress.
People’s awareness of their own stress levels varies. Some say they are stressed at a low threshold, others ignore it until they “collapse” explains Dr Gill Macleod, a GP and specialist in occupational health and psychological medicine at the Rood Lane Medical Group, one of the largest medical practices offering occupational health consulting to City companies. The practice advises companies in banking, insurance, media, law, IT and shipping on implementation of stress management services for employees as well as absence tracking and intervention services.
Macleod says: “Stress is not just something that only happens to high-flyers. Boredom and lack of stimulation are stressful too. We aim to help people to learn to manage their stress and improve their resilience as well as helping employers to monitor it and offer help and support. Stress in itself is not an illness. People are helped by adjusting their lifestyle and coping strategies. Good diet, exercise and sleep are the best treatments.”
Julie Langton-Smith is an alternative therapist and clinical hypnotherapist who advises large companies on stress-related health issues and individuals seeking stress relief. She takes a holistic approach, offering a full body health check using the latest digital scanning, hypnotherapy and emotional stress release therapy.
She says: “Most if not all stress, including pressure, tension and worry, manifests into a physical problem. Unfortunately, we are not really tuned into noticing what is happening until it becomes a physical symptom. It is therefore important to treat both the mental and emotional causes of stress as well as the physical side effects and symptoms. As the unconscious mind controls these parts of the body which we cannot control such as our heart rate, blood pressure, digestion, aches and pains, sleep, kidneys, hormones and even mental focus and memory, therapy can play an important role in restoring normal mental function. Having this kind of support is reassuring for the person and helps to put health, mind and emotions back into perspective.”
Stress treatment experts recommend a number of lifestyle changes, including improving diet with mood enhancing foods such as those with a high glycemic index in order to keep blood sugar constant and mood elevated. Stimulants such as coffee and alcohol which promote sugar spikes should be avoided.
Getting sufficient sleep and taking exercise you enjoy are both critical. It is accepted that exercise is a mood enhancer and it also gets you out of your head, releases pent-up emotion and afterwards leaves your muscles, relaxed and toned. Pick an activity that you enjoy such as walking, swimming, cycling, jogging, yoga, tai-chi, tennis or even golf. Don’t spend all day at your desk as light and sunlight help elevate mood.
Practise relaxation skills such as deep breathing, yoga or meditation, and practise them for 10-20 minutes first thing each morning. Sit on a park bench and imagine yourself on a palm fringed beach and take slow, deep breaths to relax. Go for a lunchtime or after-work massage or aromatherapy session. Whilst doctors may prescribe anti-depressants these are not a good long term solution as they can be addictive and potentially damaging to the body. There are some dietary supplements that are helpful in producing feelings of well-being but you should always seek advice from a doctor on these.
They include pregnenolone, a naturally-occurring hormone, a precursor of other hormones such as dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA); Adapton, the brand name for an extract of deep sea fish called garum armoricum that contains mood-elevating chemicals and is widely used as an alternative to anti depressants; Theanine, an aminoacid found in tea that produces a calming effect on the brain and also lowers blood pressure and can be bought in capsules and is present in green tea; Asian ginseng enhances immune function, lowers blood sugar levels, reduces the risk of certain cancers and improves physical performance and mental alertness; Siberian Ginseng is invigorating and an antioxidant; Reishi, a medicinal mushroom which can be bought in capsules is an antioxidant and also helps support nerve function; Ashwaganda (also known as Indian ginseng) has long been used in Ayurvedic medicine and fortifies the body’s ability to deal with stress.