Why being stressed in the office can actually be good for you
What are you supposed to do if you think you are stressed? It’s a question relevant to thousands of Londoners, perhaps hundreds of thousands, especially at this time of year when holidays are behind us and we’re heading into winter – the season regarded by two-thirds of people in a recent survey as the most stress-inducing time of year. And the answer is difficult to establish, not because suggestions are few but because they are so various.
Recent widely reported tips for coping with stress have included: bringing your dog to work; walking or cycling to the office; practising mindfulness on the Tube; using an NHS-approved app; letting your company remotely monitor your voice and sleep; and buying the anti-stress colouring-in book that has been a runaway bestseller in France.
Or should we stop worrying about stress and start treating it as a positive thing, as a very popular TED Talk by US health psychologist Kelly McGonigal suggests?
McGonigal’s lecture, which has been viewed almost 6.5 million times since it was posted last year, says the new science of stress teaches that how we think about stress matters.
She cites a study from the University of Wisconsin that tracked 30,000 adults and found that only those who believed stress was bad for their health were more likely to die prematurely.
Those who experienced high stress but told the researchers that they didn’t think of stress as harmful to their health were no more likely to die prematurely – even less likely than respondents who had reported relatively low stress, in fact.
She also mentions a Harvard study in which some participants were told to think of stress as helpful – because their heart-rate prepared them for action, their increased breathing fed their brain with more oxygen, etc – and found that their blood vessels didn’t contract as much, and their cardiovascular profile stayed healthier. ‘The harmful effects of stress on your health are not inevitable,’ McGonigal concludes. ‘When you choose to view your stress response as helpful, you create the biology of courage.’
Like many people, Professor Angela Clow, who researches the biological outcomes of stress at the University of Westminster, was sent the TED video by a friend. She watched it with scepticism. ‘Stress in my book is something that is negative – it affects the way you think, the way you behave, it affects your biology and it affects your emotions, and it affects them all negatively,’ she says. ‘So if you think you can think stress away, it is not really stress.’
Nevertheless, even Clow says there is some truth in the idea that stress can be coped with by talking down its effects. ‘The biological effects of stress are massive. There are some personality characteristics which make certain people less susceptible to stress – positivity, etc. Those people are less vulnerable to stress than others – but it doesn’t mean someone with a less resilient personality can do the same thing.’
Recent research on workplace stress has tended to emphasise the importance of “role ambiguity” — the feeling people have when they don’t know what is expected of them — alongside time pressure and lack of control as important triggers.
The biological changes come into place when people feel they cannot cope over an extended period and chronic stress sets in, says Clow, who describes the process as ‘a spiral of negativity.’
Official figures show that 40 per cent of all work-related illnesses in the UK in 2011/12 were stress-related — a total of 428,000, of which 49,000 were in London.
Professor David Peters, a doctor and the clinical director of the University of Westminster’s Centre for Resilience, coaches teachers, nurses and City executives in how to moderate their physical responses to stress. ‘There is a lot of new research around showing that people who practise positive emotion — the ability to summon up positive feelings from the body — can change the way their stress system works,’ he says.
Professor Peters believes that when we get badly stressed, our relatively unevolved lower brain is essentially guilty of over-reacting. ‘Our system isn’t really evolved for getting on the Tube and working in offices. So when we feel threatened — by our manager, or sitting on the Tube – it activates the same systems that we were operating when we were chasing animals or being chased by them. So we have to consciously turn on a different type of response, relaxation responses.’
Learning to be resilient is therefore about knowing how to ‘put the brakes’ on our natural responses to the provocations of modern life, ‘with the proviso that sometimes feeling stressed is an acceptable response to bad circumstances,’ Professor Peters says.
The most obvious solution to stressful situations is to try to address them externally, by speaking to your boss about management demands or lowering expectations. But the new thinking on stress at least suggests that there are improvements we can make internally as well.
Stress needn’t stress you out.
By Joshi Herrmann, as published in the London Evening Standard on 29th September 2014