Monday 10th October was a busy day for the HP Team; as well as delivering health checks across 12 sites, we were also busy at many World Mental Health Day events that our clients had asked us to run. We were aware of lots of organisations marking this event and who can blame them … according to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), in 2014/15, 440,000 people in the UK reported employee stress at a level they believed was making them ill. That’s 40% of all work-related illness. So, what is stress and how can you and your employees avoid it?
Stress is a normal physical response to situations that make you feel threatened or upset your balance in some way. Your body responds to this in several ways that include both physical and mental adjustments. This ‘stress response’ is your body’s way of protecting you from the threatening situation; it helps you stay focused, energetic and alert, and can in emergency situations save your life.
When under physiological or psychological stress, your body reacts by releasing hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones increase your heart rate, raise your blood pressure, change the digestive process and increase the level of glucose in the blood stream, all allowing you to ‘fight or flight’ if necessary. You perception of pain is reduced due to the release of endorphins and appetite is reduced to allow you to concentrate on the situation at hand. These adaptations will normally resolve once the threatening situation is over.
Unlike our ancestors whose stressors had a more definitive beginning and ending (hunting and defending), what many of us experience today is longer term stressors, such as long working hours or financial stress. These ‘chronic’ stressors, which have long term adaptations on your body, are more risky because abnormal levels of hormones are being produced for longer periods. This can result in impaired memory and concentration (however, at the end of the stressful period, the brain can regenerate back to normal!), an increased risk of high cholesterol (due to the release of cortisol in the blood) and therefore coronary heart disease. Other factors, such as muscle tension, possibly leading to migraines and tension headaches, and changes to your eating and drinking habits, resulting in you avoiding or over indulging in food and/or alcohol/smoking, are obviously not good for your health. Your digestion may also be affected and the rate at which food passes through your bowels may alter and long term stress can impact upon both the male and female reproductive systems as well as affecting libido.
These stress responses will be different for each individual for each stressful situation, however, it is clear why chronic stress is something to avoid and manage.
Avoiding long term stress:
- Know your limitations – learn to say ‘No’
- Recognise and accept the things you can’t change and concentrate on the things you have control over
- Adopt a healthy lifestyle – eat a balanced diet, make exercise a habit and make sure you get enough sleep
- Think positively – try to look at a problem differently or discuss it with someone
- Develop your time management skills and prioritise more important jobs first