Stress Now the Biggest Epidemic of the Modern World
Stress in the workplace is a major concern for employees and employers in Australia. The statistics speak for themselves:
1 in 3 Australian adults suffers from moderate to extreme stress
Stress-related workers compensation claims have increased by 400% in the last 10 years
While compensation claims made by Australian employees fell significantly between 1996 and 2004, the number of stress-related claims almost doubled
Stress not only costs in terms of compensation claims but also in terms of lost productivity.
According to Dr Helen Street, author of a new book on stress management called Life Overload, Western society increasingly pressurizes us to 'get more' to 'get ahead'. It is of little surprise that stress is now arguably the biggest epidemic of the modern world.
Dr Street says, 'Even though many articles and ideas have been forthcoming in response to the alarming rise of chronic stress, something is glaringly lacking in much of this well meaning and plentiful advice. Simply put, drowning people need rescuing before they are taught how to swim.
'The evidence supporting the stress-reducing properties of a two hour meditation class is not helpful to the overwhelmed parent or the overloaded employee who has no more time in their day for anything extra. Stressed people need strategies they can relate to. Strategies that they can take on board when there is no room left in life to take anything new on board. In short, stressed people need more relevant and realistic ways of understanding and dealing with stress in modern society.'
Life Overload challenges traditional presentations of stress management and cuts to the chase. Dr Street says her purpose in writing it was to help people understand that life overload grabs us when we are so caught up in getting life out of the way that we forget how to live it in the present.
'This book helps readers understand not only the power of gaining control in life, but of understanding what we can control and what we can't. It guides even the busiest person towards a life that is driven by their own intrinsic values and not by the social pressure of someone else's ideas of success,' she says.
The cost of stress:
Stress-related presenteeism and absenteeism cost the Australian economy $14.81 billion a year
Stress-related presenteesim and absenteeism are directly costing Australian employers $10.11 billion a year
3.2 days per worker are lost to stress every year
Associate Professor Helen Street, a social psychologist and stress expert, lectures in the School of Psychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences at the University of Western Australia. She is a co-founder of Wise Solutions, an educational mental health service and co-organiser of The Positive Schools mental health and wellbeing initiative. In addition to her teaching work, Helen has ten years of clinical experience as an expert in stress management, working with over five thousand professionals in Australia and the UK. Helen works clinically with individual clients on a one-on-one basis and speaks at seminars on stress. She has written numerous papers and book chapters and is the co-author of Standing Without Shoes. Helen lives in Perth with her partner Neil, their three children, and their Beagle. Helen enjoys managing her own busy life with a passion for art and a love of action movies.
Life Overload: Immediate life-saving strategies from a stress expert
Author: Helen Street
Question: Why do you think 1 in 3 Australian adults suffer from moderate to extreme stress?
Helen Street: Yes, I think it is increasingly common, certainly for all those that feel that they are suffering from chronic stress and all the other people who feel that life is simply too busy. I think there are a lot of reasons and one of the key reasons is that we live in a society where we have an increasing amount of access to media information, all of the time. Although technology can certainly help us to communicate effectively and efficiently, never before have we been open to so many messages telling us that it would be a good idea if we bought a new thing or did a new thing or looked a certain way or even behaved in a certain way and that gives us an underlining subtext that we need to constantly changing, improving and trying to get ahead if we want to be successful and fit in. Ultimately, a really important point about stress is that stress is not about being too busy it's about being too busy trying to get ahead and we then end up in a way of living that means we are constantly trying to get through our checklist and get stuff out of the way. Often we think 'I'll have a break on the weekend' or 'I'll have a break at the end of the month or year' but in reality unless we have here and now time in our lives more frequently we are in a constant state of feeling under threat and that makes us chronically stressed.
Question: Personally I know when I'm stress my shoulders become tight, how does stress affect our body?
Helen Street: The back of the neck becoming tight is because the body is ready to fight or run away because our bodies still get us ready for a threat as if there was a tiger or a lion in our environment so we are prepared to fight for our survival. Obviously in reality now days most of our threats are social or psychological so we don't use the muscles that are ready to fight the pretender and we end up with back aches or head aches and feeling very exhausted.
Emotionally and mentally I think are the areas of stress people are most aware of now days and here we see people who are very sensitive and will take little things very personally or feel very emotion. When we are under threat it makes sense that we will be on alert in our environment because we don't want to be attacked and eaten by the lion; in the modern day that means we tend to be more inclined to look to our environment to get feedback on how we are doing which means we are very reliant on others options. This makes us very vulnerable and also because we're ready to fight it can make us very irritable which can be when you snap at your husband or kids before you've realised what's going on because of the anger. Stress can also cause worry and that means we are constantly trying to problem solve and that leads us to focus on things that are completely out of our control and that's the type of worry that wakes us up at 2am in the morning.
Ultimately stress makes us feel very, very tired. It is very easy to think 'life is too busy, I really need an early night' but in reality we could go on holidays and have an endlessly busy time looking at ancient monuments and going to restaurants and not feel tired at all. This is because you feel energised by that and again it's the stress that exhausts us because we are constantly busy trying to get ahead, all the time.
Question: How does stress affect our productivity in the workplace?
Helen Street: Partly because we're tired and we don't function as well but also because we're likely to be distracted. When stressed your tired and irritable which means we're not going to be engaged in what we're doing and generally speaking if we're out of balance emotionally and psychically we're not going to function as well.
Question: How can we manage our stress?
Helen Street: There are lots that we can do. There is a lot of stress management advice and I think that although a lot of it is very well meaning it often falls down in that it suggests we do things that while in research have been found to be very good stress management tools; they don't sit very well into a busy life such as Yoga and meditation. These traditional stress management tools can seem completely unrealistic to somebody who feels that they have no spare minutes in their week in which case I'd say the number one thing someone who is feeling overloaded can do is find yourself something that is so much fun for you that you do not look at your watch while you do it, you feel energised by it and find two hours to do that, in a week. Although two hours seems like a big chunk of time, if it's fun and engaging it's great. Don't go to a yoga class and look at your watch the whole way through. An easy example is if you go out with a group of your close friends, even if you stay out too late, drink too much or eat all the wrong things if you have a really engaged good time out then it actually really energises you for the days after that.
Interview by Brooke Hunter