Increased anxiety brought about by financial and job insecurity now pose a risk to employee health, with two in three workers claiming they feel more stressed, run down and prone to illness since the credit crunch.
A serious issue for OH is that increased stress can have a direct impact on employee health in itself, causing increased levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which is proven to suppress immunity, making those most under pressure more susceptible to viruses.
Heightened levels of stress can also lead to other symptoms, including reduced ability to sleep, loss of appetite and tendency towards maladaptive behaviours, such as excessive alcohol consumption or drug use, further damaging the individual’s physical and mental wellbeing.
Good and bad
This isn’t to say that all stress is a bad thing. A certain amount of ‘good’ stress is essential, motivating us to perform and strive to overcome obstacles. Too little stress, and we become bored and disengaged. Stress is our body’s natural warning signal, telling us that there’s an event on the horizon that will require all our focus and energy to overcome it. The problem arises when we are unable to recover quickly and fully. Then our body/mind equilibrium becomes disturbed and sets itself to a constant state of alarm. The resulting ‘bad’ stress can lead to ill health, ranging from anxiety and depression to cardiovascular disease.
With the UK economy now shrinking at twice the rate initially predicted by economists, perpetual levels of stress brought about by financial and job uncertainty are increasing. So what can OH do to ensure this doesn’t impact negatively on the workforce?
Research into who stays healthy while under stress reveals that it isn’t the amount of stress that we are exposed to that matters most, but rather our ability to view increased pressure as a positive challenge to be overcome, rather than an insurmountable obstacle or threat.
The problem is that each individual’s reaction to stress is different, with some people positively thriving on increased uncertainty, pressure and deadlines that others would gladly call in sick to avoid. Indeed ‘stress junkies’ – competitive high-achievers – pride themselves on performing under pressure so extreme it would cause most of us to become distracted by the thought of failure and under-perform.
Stress occurs when our perception of a threat or pressure exceeds our perceived ability to cope. For the most part, this is pre-determined by our genetic disposition and principles for living imparted to us in early life. However, there is a third factor – how pressurised our environment is – that OH can help to influence.
Once wrongly viewed as a ‘manager disease’, the reality is that those who feel most overworked and least empowered are most likely to become sick from stress.
Research shows the more people feel they can control their destiny, even if that’s just setting their own deadlines or having an opportunity to own a project or initiative, the greater their resilience to stress and the adverse health effects that can result.
The more OH can empower employees to take greater control over their physical wellbeing, as their first means of enhancing their mental wellbeing, the more resilient the workforce will become to the ill-effects of increasing stress.
Vitality initiatives, ranging from nutrition workshops to sports activities, should be designed not only to improve the physical wellbeing of staff, but also to educate them on how to boost their energy levels. Something as simple as introducing a bowl of fruit, information on how to improve their posture at work, or telephone access to an employee assistance programme (EAP) to talk through any concerns, will encourage employees to take better care of themselves.
When they feel looked after and empowered to take care of themselves at work, they will naturally follow these principles outside of work, and feel less inclined to drink to excess, skip meals or stay up late. Yet, once symptoms of mental distress or maladaptive behaviours, such as the use of alcohol as ‘anti-depressant’, kick in, it is crucial to make an early diagnosis and appropriate referrals to mental health specialists or an EAP.
Critical to empowering staff to take better care of themselves, and increasing their resilience to stress, is breaking bad habits. If someone habitually works through lunch and does not realise how thirsty they are until the end of the day, they will be even less inclined to listen to their body in times of crisis. To overcome this, we must promote healthy workplace rituals that also increase productivity, such as working intensively for ‘sprints’ of two hours followed by a proper break, but also engage senior managers to lead by example and make employees feel it’s okay to follow suit.
Only by making timely referrals and appreciating the importance of empowering staff to look after themselves can OH increase employee resilience and ensure heightened anxiety surrounding the future of the economy doesn’t translate into substantially increased absence.
Wolfgang Seidl, executive dircetor of the Validium Group, is a medical doctor and BACP-accredited counsellor. He specialises in vitality programmes, psychotherapy and stress management.