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Why stress is good for you
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Just put in a stressful 60-hour week? Some people would say that's a good thing - and not just your slave-driver boss. In fact, while almost three-quarters of employees admit to being stressed at work, more than half think that this is by no means a problem. Not only is stress at work conductive to quality performance, they say - it even aids relaxation once you've clocked off for the day.

Considering the current emphasis on work-life balance, the results of research from financial recruiter Elements are surprising - particularly the finding that staff see putting in long hours and meeting tight deadlines as a sign they are doing well at work. So much for the ideal of the happy employee, managing their time and workload effectively. It appears that for many, to be a successful employee is to be stressed employee, battling against the clock.

But neurotic workers and unscrupulous employers aside, could there be something in the idea that stress can actually be good for work satisfaction, and even health? Perhaps. Research from the universities of Kentucky and British Columbia has showed that moderate amounts of stress can actually strengthen the immune system and be good for health.

Short bursts of stress - of the type fuelled by a job interview, or an intimidating presentation - trigger a boost to the immune system (thought to relate to the primeval "fight or flight" response).

When primeval humans encountered such circumstances, the immune boost would have been useful to protect them against infection from whatever injury might have been sustained by the stressful encounter. And the natural heightening of immunity is still a useful health benefit.

But there is an obvious caveat to these findings. The Kentucky- British Columbia study emphasized the positive role of controlled bursts of stress, rather than of perpetual, unavoidable pressure. If strain on an individual becomes a long-term and inescapable aspect of a person's job, the effects become negative - including lowered immunity and an increased risk of illness.

Balancing your employment so that any stressful episodes remain just that - episodes - can be difficult. But according to Professor Graham Jones, co-author with Olympic gold medal winning swimmer Adrian Moorhouse of Developing Mental Toughness, it is possible to train yourself to deal with stressful situations in beneficial rather than debilitating ways.

"Stress takes two forms: acute and chronic," he says. "The former is characterized by bouts of stress interspersed with periods of calm, whereas in the latter the bouts run into one another: You get home from work and are unable to switch off from the things that are frustrating you. You may even lie awake at night worrying.

"This form of stress is not good for you if it occurs over prolonged periods. Acute stress, on the other hand, is not all bad news. In fact, it can help you focus on priorities and mobilize the resources required to perform."

The problem of defining which kinds of stress are good for health and which are bad leads many experts to suggest aiming for as little anxiety as possible.

Doctors, psychologists and trade unions are all quick to point out that stress can have disastrous effects on health - and while a little pressure might be acceptable, the physical consequences of overdoing it are fairly dire.

Overstimulation of the adrenal gland interferes with cortical levels, which can disrupt your waking and sleep patterns. Migraines, hypertension, lowered immunity and depression are just a few of the associated symptoms.

"Too often, the stress we encounter becomes negative," says Tricia Woolfrey, a stress management trainer. Approximately 12.8 million working days were lost to stress, depression and anxiety in 2004-05, according to the UK Health and Safety Executive, costing about US$7.7 billion every year.

A further study revealed that approximately 420,000 individuals in Britain believed they were experiencing work-related stress at a level that was making them ill.

But Jones believes that whether stress is a negative or positive thing depends almost entirely on your own perceptions.

"The crucial message about stress is that most of it is self-imposed," he says. "Everybody experiences stress to some degree - even top performers. The difference is, they have identified strategies to control these symptoms and harness their stress to help them perform better. The way you think about pressure determines whether or not you are stressed by it.

"The basic choice you have is between seeing pressure as positive in terms of providing an opportunity or negative in that it poses a threat, resulting in stress and anxiety. The realization that you have a choice is the first step to controlling stress. The second is recognizing the effect stress has on you - and learning to control these effects."

A little stress can be beneficial - for your health and for your career - but working relentlessly against the clock can be mentally and physically destructive. And your wellbeing is certainly more important than your next promotion.

(Agencies via China Daily November 7, 2007)

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