Are you practising safe stress?

Are you practising safe stress?

Approaching Burnout Boulevard? Join the crowd. Stress is common – and because it’s a potential killer, SHEQ MANAGEMENT will be publishing a series of columns by author and stress guru RICHARD HAWKEY. In this, the first of the series, he looks at the extent of the problem …

A new company has entered your market. At the same time, a flood of cheaper, foreign-made alternatives has hit the shelves. Existing clients are downscaling their orders, blaming the ubiquitous “financial crisis”, the Greeks and head-office budget cuts. You spent 2011 pulling on the cost-cutting lever and your margin is now in lonely single-digit figures.

This is a nightmarish situation many organisations find themselves in. Imagine having to try and meet your 2012 targets with 58 percent of your employees on the verge of exhaustion and suffering from debilitating sleep disorders. Imagine having to worry about when the 37 percent who are experiencing unexplained chest pains will be off ill for extended periods, or if they will invoke your disability insurance – or worse, drop dead. Imagine that at least 49 percent of your staff are demotivated. Imagine you have to try and tackle this bear with 51 percent of your employees so disengaged they are merely “living for Fridays”.

Thank goodness you aren’t one of these employers.

Or are you?

These figures were taken from surveys conducted across a variety of South African companies between September 2011 and January 2012. The survey was compiled by several doctors and is aimed at raising awareness of some of the common physical, cognitive, behavioural and emotional symptoms of excess negative stress.

The results have been startling:
• 25 percent of employees surveyed said they have significant difficulty concentrating;
• almost 27 percent feel a debilitating loss of meaning in their lives;
• 21 percent struggle to control their anger and/or other emotional outbursts such as crying;
• 26 percent complain of chronic abdominal upsets, and a similar number have noticed a marked increase in the number of colds and coughs they are getting; and
• 31 percent hobble through the day with general unexplained aches and pains.

Is this the profile of a team you want to take into battle? Are you sure you and your team aren’t just suffering in silence?

So why should you bother to read this column or pay any attention to what I have to say? I am nobody famous and don’t hold a medical degree. And therein lie my credentials – I am Mr Average, trying to stay on this crazy urban treadmill without falling off. Perhaps a bit like you?

In 2010, I did fall off that treadmill, literally burning out and slipping into a severe clinical depression – something I arrogantly and ignorantly didn’t think happened to people like me.

I took it very personally, but soon learnt that there are a lot of “people like me”. The US Centre for Disease Control estimates that approximately 10 percent of that country’s adult population is suffering from some form of major depressive disorder. Recent Gallup Poll results and other reports indicate that between 50 percent and 80 percent of workers in the UK are overly stressed.

In my search for answers, I discovered that the effects of excess negative stress are so severe, and are affecting so many people, that it is now being widely referred to as the “Black Death of the 21st Century”.

Perhaps that’s a bit melodramatic, but what isn’t overstated is the empirical evidence of the drop in productivity, creativity and morale – coupled to increased operational and reputational risk and higher absenteeism, “presenteeism” (employees show up, but they might as well have stayed home) and staff turnover – that go along with high levels of negative stress.

Those are hard, bottom-line issues that warrant proper and dutiful executive attention. Unfortunately, in many organisations the consequences of stress are given about as much sincere attention as a supermodel’s handwriting.

Are you practising safe stress?By giving hard facts and simple, practical advice based on my own experience as well as the input of many medical professionals, I am trying to change this. I’m aiming to empower individuals to build personal resilience which organisations will experience as improved productivity, creativity and morale.

In future columns, I will expand on the concept of “whole life balance” as a powerful framework for combating excess negative stress and building personal (and hence organisational) resilience. The columns will build one upon another, providing practical tools, tips and techniques – leaving you with a personalised stress management plan which I urge you to share with your teams.

In the next column, I will explain the stress response that our bodies experience and the importance of recognising what makes us stressed.

I will help you to identify how stress is manifesting within you, and provide a practical tool for identifying the key stressors in your life. Self-awareness is crucial before we can move on to the various strategies for dealing with those stressors and providing comprehensive and holistic advice on how to build your resilience.

I look forward to your comments and insights as we side-step the potholes that lie along Burnout Boulevard together.

Breathe deeply and slowly
Most of us pant like a dog when we breathe, inhaling shallowly and making our shoulders rise and fall. Taking deep, slow breaths allows more oxygen to enter our bodies, lowers our heart rate and helps us think more clearly.

Put a hand on your tummy and concentrate on breathing slowly and deeply, counting to three in your head while your diaphragm/tummy expands. Hold that breath for the count of two, then exhale slowly to the count of three. Repeat five or six times.

This can be done during especially harrowing meetings, prior to sales calls, taxi-dodging on the M1 or in bed at the end of the day.


Richard Hawkey, author of Life Less Lived and founder of equilibriumsolutions, spent many years pounding the corporate treadmill until literally falling off; diagnosed with burnout and clinical depression. Now, Hawkey has combined his general management and leadership experience with lessons learnt from mismanaging stress, to become a self-styled anti-stress evangelist. He specialises in identifying stress in oneself and others; the personal and professional impacts; and how one can break out of the negative spiral and emerge vigorous and vital to realise quantifiable benefits.

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SHEQ Management

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