Stressing the positive

Despite the popular belief that stress is a bad thing, if it’s managed
properly, it can help you ride on the crest of the wave rather than being
washed away by ‘excessive’ pressure, writes Nic Paton

Stress is a multi-million pound business. From six-figure compensation
payments and stressed out workers to the myriad of consultancies that have
sprung up devoted to monitoring, handling and reducing stress, the ‘stress
industry’ is now a highly-lucrative one – not to mention the high legal fees
that inevitably accompany such cases.

Of course, even if it’s still not a medically-defined condition, stress is
not something to be taken lightly. The Health & Safety Executive (HSE)
estimates up to 13.4 million days a year are lost because stress at work.

The HSE’s unprecedented move, in August, in ordering West Dorset General
Hospitals NHS Trust to reduce the levels of stress faced by staff or face
unlimited fines, even before the launch of new stress management standards next
year, has, if nothing else, focused minds.

Yet, amid all the hand-wringing, it is too often forgotten that, much like
Gordon Gecko’s 1980s mantra that "greed is good" from the film Wall
Street, stress can also be good for you.

"Stress, if managed properly, can actually be a positive thing for
organisations. It is only when people stick their heads in the sand and say it
is not an issue that it is negative," argues Clive Pinder, managing
director of health management specialist Vielife.

Pinder, who has worked with organisations as diverse as Standard Life and
the Jordan racing team, says businesses too often fail to differentiate between
stress and pressure.

"Often when people talk about stress what they mean is pressure. There
is a ‘pressure curve’, rising from boredom through comfort, challenge and
strain and panic," he says. "There is a fine line between being
challenged and strained."

Stress too often becomes a catch-all phrase for people working under
pressure. It is up to organisations to provide the tools and understanding
managers need, and for employees to understand the sort of pressures managers
are under.

In the Royal Marines, for example, the hierarchy has been exploring ways of
detecting post-traumatic stress disorder at a very early stage. The combat
stress project trains frontline troops, officers and commanders to recognise
symptoms of stress in both themselves and their colleagues, and to react to it.

The symptoms of stress can include an inability to cope and increased
absence, explains Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology and
health at the Manchester School of Management. However, one of the hardest
parts of dealing with stress is that everyone reacts to different stressors in
different ways.

Organisations, Cooper advises, should be collecting data on sickness
absence, carrying out stress audits of their employees, working with the HR and
occupational health departments on any trends that may be emerging –
particularly around absence – and looking at things such as their labour
turnover figures. It is wise, too, to look at your organisation’s culture, as bullying
and aggression can often be signs of stress.

"Employers are worried about the HSE because they think all an
individual has to do is mention the word ‘stress’ and they are going to be in trouble.
But if you look at stress cases, the employee has an onus to prove they were
under stress, that they told their employer and that it has had a negative
impact on their health. All these are hard to prove," says Cooper.
"Pressure is only a problem when it exceeds an individual’s capacity to
cope."

And it is worth remembering that constant pressure can quickly tip over into
damaging stress, warns stress consultant Carole Spiers. "You may get a
short-term adrenalin rush," she says, but you cannot maintain it over a
long period of time. You can still be effective, but constant pressure will
take its toll."

Case study: Unilever

Since September 2002, Unilever has
been piloting a programme designed to improve the physical and mental health of
its top leaders. Run by Dr John Cooper, Unilever’s head of corporate
occupational health, the programme has taken as its basic premise the notion
that most executives don’t have a great deal wrong medically. What they need,
are tools to help them become more productive and to deal with the everyday
pressures of their job – to sleep better, be more alert and have more stamina.

The programme includes drawing up a personal fitness programme
at the in-house gym and a nutritional assessment to look at how best to maintain
energy and stamina levels.  

While still at an early stage, all 41 participants have shown
improvements in energy, stamina, general health, recovery from travel and
motivation. All but one have lost weight, some have reported improvements in
cholesterol and a quarter have reported improved sleep patterns.

How stress can be good for you

– It makes you more alert and
productive

– It gets you up and going in the morning (as long as it hasn’t
been keeping you awake all night)

– It helps you overcome challenges

– It improves circulation and brain power

– It can help you fight infection and boost your immune system

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