Passing the stress test: How do we combat silent killer in hectic modern world?

To mark Stress Awareness Month, a leading expert says taking control, achieving a healthy work-life balance and good relationships are key to improving wellbeing

Increasingly busy work and home lives, as well as concerns over global events, are all triggers of stress. PA
Powered by automated translation

Often found to be the biggest cause of sick leave, stress is one of the curses of the modern world, affecting people both in the workplace and in their busy personal lives.

It is a normal response to potential hazards, so may have helped our hunter-gatherer ancestors to respond to dangerous situations such as attacks by animals or other groups of people.

However, in the modern world it has been dubbed the silent killer because it has been blamed for contributing to some of the leading causes of death, including heart disease, cancer and dementia. It has also been linked to the development of type 2 diabetes.

For the past three decades, in some parts of the world April has been designated Stress Awareness Month to highlight the causes and possible cures for stress.

Few people know more about the subject than Professor Sir Cary Cooper, an American-British professor of organisational psychology and health at the University of Manchester's Alliance Manchester Business School in the UK.

He has written or co-written a wealth of books on the subject, including Stress: A Brief History, How to deal with stress and Organisational Stress.

He is in no doubt that stress has become an increasing concern, highlighting statistics showing that it and now accounts for 57 per cent of long-term sickness in the UK, having overtaken backache as the leading cause of prolonged absences from work.

Key causes of stress

According to Sir Cary, there are two key fundamental causes of stress: uncertainty and lack of control. Playing into these are more specific factors, such as a cost-of-living crisis, high energy costs, political uncertainty such as the war in Ukraine and job insecurity.

“There’s uncertainty in so many countries and most of these are outside the control of individuals,” he says.

“The job insecurity is a result of the global recession we’re about to go into. Most developed countries are in it or bumping along the bottom.”

Another major source of stress, and possibly the greatest of all, is how people are managed at work. Typically, Sir Cary says, most people in managerial roles are promoted or recruited based on their technical, not people, skills.

“What causes damage is poor management,” he says.

“They know the technical part but they’re bad at managing human beings. That really is a big issue.

“The euphemism is that people don’t leave organisations or jobs, they leave bosses — that’s true.

“If your manager doesn’t have good EQ [emotional intelligence], you’re going to get ill.”

Long hours and always on call

Another concern in the workplace is a long-hours culture and how it interferes with work-life balance.

Sir Cary said that some countries, such as Japan, have a long hours culture, as do certain sectors such as investment banking, while bullying can be a problem in healthcare. However, employees in many types of workplace across the globe may be affected.

The issue of work-life balance has intensified in an era of electronic communication, because many people find that they can never truly escape the office. This results in “techno-stress”.

“Emails are 24/7. They’re on your smartphone, they connect you everywhere,” Sir Cary says.

“People are overwhelmed with electronic overload.

“Managers should be very careful to try to minimise the number of emails they send out after hours.”

In several countries, among them France, Portugal and New Zealand, “right to disconnect” laws have been introduced to combat this problem.

Workers may have the right, for example, to not be treated any less favourably by their employer if they ignore communications sent outside of normal working hours.

People caught up in stressful workplace situations, such as having a bad boss or working all excessive hours, should try to take control of the situation, Sir Cary says.

“If you want to work flexibly and your boss doesn’t want you to, try to convince him or her why you would be more productive.”

Employees unable to convince their employer to allow them to work flexibly, or who cannot in other ways improve their circumstances at work, should, he suggests, look for another job.

“We all have options. Get out,” Sir Cary says.

“But taking control is really important to do.”

He suggests that anyone in employment should ensure that there is a divide between home life and the workplace, which means, for example, switching off smartphones at night or when on holiday, and not checking work email accounts. Spending time with family and friends, and exercising, are also recommended.

When in work, people should realise that their in-tray is never likely to be empty, so they should prioritise and make an extra effort not to work long hours. Maintaining good relationships at home and in the office is also key.

“If you have a bad relationship at home, it’s going to affect you at work,” Sir Cary says.

“If you’re being bullied at work it’s going to affect you at home.”

Electronic overload can be an issue outside of work, with people spending hours a day on sites such as Facebook or Twitter, sites that often seem to promote argumentative discourse.

“You can get addicted and it can create problems,” he says.

“You get addicted because it’s taking away from people that matter — your family, your kids, your relatives, your friends. The social connectedness with other people is really healthy.”

Five ways to address stress — in pictures

Updated: April 15, 2023, 12:00 AM