Stressing The Point

20th July 2012

Heather Harris investigates the most common cause for calling in sick…

When I heard that an infant school had introduced yoga in the classroom to reduce the children’s ‘stress levels’ I thought it was a joke. Nits and grazed knees, yes, but stress at the age of five was not something my Calpol- and Elastoplast-filled first-aid box could treat. If five-year-olds are suffering, then stress truly is the scourge of the modern age. Whatever did we suffer from before it was invented?

According to my mother, stress is a disease that never existed in her day (just like depression or dyslexia or ADHD or indeed, anything else that couldn’t be cured by a brisk walk in the fresh air).

In a way she was right, though. The ‘S’ word is comparatively new, having not actually appeared in a medical journal until 1935 when 28-year-old Hungarian Hans Selye first used the term to describe a syndrome occurring in laboratory rats. Quite what these poor rats were stressed about – mortgage repayments, family illness or just work/sewer balance – is not documented. What Selye’s report does talk about, however, is how they reacted to a sudden change in their situation.

He breaks this down to three stages. First there is an ‘alarm reaction’, in which the body prepares itself for ‘fight or flight’. No organism can sustain this condition of excitement, so a second stage of adaptation follows (provided, of course, that the organism has survived the first one). In the second stage, a resistance to the stress is built. Finally, if the experience of stress is sufficiently long, the body eventually enters a stage of exhaustion, a sort of ageing ‘due to wear and tear’…

…and some seventy years later, it seems very fitting that, according to a recent Labour Force Survey, it’s the rat race that has caused 435,000 workers a year to call in sick due to the ‘wear and tear’ of this rodent syndrome. Given the estimated cost to the UK economy of over £30bn, it’s enough to put the Chancellor’s stress levels through the roof.

But as the UK-based International Stress Management Association (ISMA) is keen to point out, ‘Stress itself is not an illness’. It is the body and mind’s response or, to use ISMA’s own official definition, ‘the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them’.

One man’s stress may be another man’s challenge purely down to their genetics. The old stereotype that some people thrive on stress is true. For some top executives the cut and thrust of business (and, in Sir Richard Branson’s case, the odd near-death hot air balloon adventure or imminent Virgin Galactic space flight) gives them the feeling of power and energy, whereas it drives others to early retirement and the golf course.

In professional sport too, the pressures are immense but for Sir Alex Ferguson, stress is banished with the same hair dryer treatment as his failing Man Utd players at half-time. For others, such as Alan Shearer, it’s had them running for the safety of the Match of the Day commentary box faster than you can say, ‘relegation battle’.

On a personal level, the idea of having to throw a dinner party for eight will send my stress levels to Gas Mark 10 but others, I’m led to believe, find a few days planning, shopping, prepping and cooking as soothing and comforting as, say, warm jam roly poly.

One thing that all the experts agree on is that time – or the lack of it – is the main reason why official stress levels have doubled in the last four years. A 2011 report by Aviva Insurance on health and work found that ‘Workers are putting in a staggering 26 million extra hours in the workplace each day. Nearly one in four claims they work an extra 2-3 hours daily. Seventy-nine per cent of these are unpaid, meaning employers are getting around £225 million of free hours each day’.

And with redundancy levels rising, the pressure to ‘put the hours in’ is greater than ever. Throw in the need to be the perfect parent and be home in time to read a bedtime story… oh, and fit in a few hours in the gym before settling down to go through emails until 3am – and suddenly the reason why we’re all about to blow is apparent.

So bad has the situation become that it’s even reached Parliament, with ISMA encouraging David Amess MP to table the question: ‘Why has UK business ignored the threat of psychosocial risk and what actions does this government propose to take to reduce the level of stress in society and the workplace?’

In the past, mental health issues at work have been brushed behind the photocopier, but as more companies recognise the financial cost of absenteeism responses are slowly improving.

According to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), ‘Despite pressure to cut costs, 22% of organisations have increased their spend on employee well-being and have indicated a further increase in spend this year.’

And it’s money well spent; the mental health charity MIND estimates that ‘With greater awareness and mental health support, businesses could save one third of these sickness absence costs – a mammoth £8 billion a year’.

The problem is that, unlike chickenpox or flu, the symptoms of stress are not obvious but are as varied as the people who suffer them; everything from headache and chest pains to constipation, muscle soreness, and pins and needles can be brought on by uncontrollable pressure – and those are just the physical reactions. Add in behavioural ones such as insomnia, aggression, compulsive lying and reliance on alcohol, and then throw in a few emotional and psychological effects including memory lapses, tearfulness, lack of libido and self confidence – and you’re only half way through the list.

Hardly surprising then that there’s not one massive bottle of medicine taken twice a day after meals that will be an instant cure. Equally, there’s not one stress-busting self-help book that has all the answers – and if it did it would be so huge that we’d all be too busy to find time to read it.

Instead, all the various medics and psychologists agree that there are a few obvious starting points to avoid stress building up in the first place. They include managing time better and learning to say no, adopting a healthy lifestyle with relaxation built in, plus time with friends (a problem shared etc etc), doing unpleasant things first so they don’t mount up, avoiding conflict, adopting a positive outlook and laying off stimulants such as alcohol and cigarettes. Many of these are easier said than done, of course, but their effectiveness is proven.

GPs are also being educated to take stress seriously and to support patients to change their lifestyle rather than just sign them off work – as loneliness and lack of structure can only exacerbate the problem.

Companies too are urged by ISMA to adopt a Stress Management Policy. A new professional award scheme was announced on National Stress Awareness Day in November last year to recognise the UK’s best organisations for beating stress in the workplace. (Let’s just hope the respective HR departments don’t get too overworked trying to get their entry in on time).

And, if all else fails, who knows? – perhaps putting the Lotus Position on the school curriculum may be a good place to start. Today’s yoga-loving youngsters may indeed be the laid back leaders of tomorrow.

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