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"
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
"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)