Stressing how critical your health is

Share this article

WE live in a long-hours culture and are a nation of hard workers, spending more and more of our time in the workplace, slogging it out at an average of 45 hours every single week.

For many, having and building a successful career is top of the agenda and long gone are the days of merely having just a "job". Now, we seem to live to work rather than work to live. And so the workplace all too often becomes a second home.

But whereas the health and safety conditions in our first home are down to ourselves, in our second home they've been chosen for us by our employers. And harsh or poor lighting, air-conditioning, bad seating, germs from colleagues, hours spent hunched over a desk or the stress of tight deadlines can make the office a hotbed for ailments, or simply leave us run down, ultimately resulting in overdue duvet days convalescing.

By the beginning of March this year, some 7.5 million of us had already taken a day off sick due to cold or flu symptoms - and that's not even counting those of us who have taken a sickie because of stress or some other ailment. So how can we make sure we stay well at work?

Constant emails, ringing telephones, an ever-increasing 'To Do' list, an overflowing in-tray, targets and deadlines, another last-minute presentation and conference call, short staffing, and another project to start - the everyday pressures of modern working life.

You don't have to be a stress-head to feel the pressure at work, and even the most laid back among us have times when everything gets on top of us and we start tearing our hair out. Stress, to varying degrees, is costing the UK economy around 13 billion in sick pay, and five million of us claim it's making us ill - mentally or physically - every single year.

"There is more stress now within organisations and so it's more common among employees," admits Alastair Taylor, director of In Equilibrium, a Dunfermline-based consultancy specialising in training in stress management, well-being and performance in the workplace. "We see a lot of companies throughout the UK and the feedback we get suggests that the pace of change is growing all the time, there's more competition and every organisation has to come up with better products and services all the time. So there's far more uncertainty, and the demands on employees are greater than in the past. It all adds to stress."

Loss of sleep, change in appetite, mood swings, difficulty in concentration and heart palpitations are all often stress symptoms. "The main symptom is negative changes in someone," adds Alastair. "It may be that they're just not looking well, they catch colds more often, their appearance becomes dishevelled, they might become more aggressive, depressed."

And chronic stress can potentially lead to serious health concerns such as heart disease, diabetes and irritable bowel syndrome. So what can we do? Firstly, take regular breaks to stand up, stretch and loosen those muscles. Take a lunch break away from your desk as well to give yourself time out, to recharge those batteries and to allow food to digest properly. And, wherever possible, pop outside for fresh air.

Alastair adds: "Most importantly, learn to switch off after work and have the ability not to dwell on work problems. This causes more stress than anything else. There is a difference between pressure and stress - we all need pressure to get our juices flowing - but stress is harmful. So switch off, learn to relax when you're at work, always take breaks and exercise. Exercise releases endorphins which makes you feel good, it can clear you mind. Exercise is one of the top suggestions for stress management."

So you've mastered the art of deep breathing and visualising peaceful green fields. You've signed up for a lunchtime yoga class and pound the treadmill most evenings. And you've learned to delegate and say "no" so that work doesn't become overwhelming.

However, no matter how well we can manage our stress, sometimes it seems we just don't stand a chance of staying healthy when we're sitting next to a colleague coughing and spluttering all over their keyboard. And in a recent survey conducted by Yakult, 95 per cent of those questioned admitted they struggle into work when ill, so there's no wonder we pick up sniffles in the workplace.

"With so many people going to work when ill, it's inevitable that many of us will come into contact with germs during the working day," says illness expert Ron Eccles, of the national Common Cold Centre. "The key to strengthening our bodies against attack lies within our immune system, the majority of which lies in our gut, so looking after your digestive system with diet, exercise and a healthy lifestyle is vital for stronger natural defences."

Air conditioning can breed germs, and with so many offices using it, it's easy to see why a whole workforce can be struck down with head colds and coughs within days. And while it's not always possible to turn off the air-con and open a window instead, you can reduce the likelihood of picking up workplace bugs.

Firstly keep your hands clean - germs are widely spread this way. And keep wipes in your drawers to clean keyboards, phones and surfaces which will contain such bugs. Also, eradicate toxins that linger from work items such as furniture, photocopiers and paint, by dotting a few plants around as they'll suck up the toxins and improve the quality of the air.

And Edinburgh herbalist Pauline Hodge of Thuja in Comiston Road says herbal remedies are the way forward.

"Air conditioning is the worst for picking up these nasties. Echinecea, lots of garlic and wild indigo are good to boost immunity and clear off infections.

"These herbal remedies will build up your immunity, making you less likely to catch these workplace infections and fight off illnesses in their early stages, meaning you're less likely to get as ill.

"Dry skin is another offender. So blue lavender oil, if applied on the face, acts as protection against the computer and air conditioning, keeping your skin moisturised and healthy."

According to the Health and Safety Executive, musculoskeletal disorders are now the biggest cause of work-related ill-health, and it's estimated that they were responsible for the loss of 4.9 million working days in 2003 and 2004.

Back pain is the second most common cause, costing the UK economy 5bn every year in sickness. However, many back problems can be prevented by sitting and moving correctly, as well as lifting carefully. And in desk jobs correct posture is vital.

Edinburgh osteopath Gavin Routledge of Active X Clinics says: "Many people suffer from the effects of a poorly designed workplace, or a work pattern that increases likelihood of injury."

Sitting hunched in front of a computer all day places stress on the neck and shoulders, and the wrong chair can cause lower back pain. "People often have good chairs, but have little idea how to modify them to decrease strain on their lower back," adds Gavin.

So make sure your seat supports your spine by adjusting it. Sit face on to the computer to prevent long-term twisting. Don't support the phone between your chin and shoulder. And stretch muscles on a regular basis - rotate your neck to loosen muscles and try shoulder shrugs. Charity BackCare ( has a list of workplace exercises online to reduce back pain. And if you are already a victim of back pain, Gavin stresses that sufferers must not put off seeing the specialists, as the condition will only worsen.

He says: "The earlier you get help the easier it is to isolate the problem. If you don't, your back will try to compensate for it and all sorts of other things can go wrong.

"Muscles can pull you over, you can get a twist in the spine, shoulder problems can arise or you hold your head differently and you get headaches. Often people will have a range of problems that originated from lower back pain."