We're feeling the strain more than ever, new research shows. But don't worry, says Jeremy Laurance; here are some simple ways to stay calm
Half the British population feels more stressed today than they did five years ago, according to a survey commissioned by the Samaritans. More than one-tenth of people say they have felt suicidal - twice the proportion in 2002. But there are ways to reduce your levels of stress - and to improve the quality of your working life. Here are 10 tips.
1. UNDERSTAND WHAT STRESS IS
Stress is defined as what happens when the demands made on a person exceed that person's ability to cope. The word is derived from the Latin stringere - "to draw tight". Some stress is good - it keeps us on our toes and driving onwards. Its origin lies in the "fight or flight" response that evolved in our ancestors and was essential for survival in prehistoric times.
Today, the same fight or flight response - triggering the release of the stress hormones adrenalin and cortisol and marked by a pounding heart or sweaty brow - cannot be discharged by running or fighting as our ancestors did. It has physical and emotional effects, increasing blood pressure and putting a strain on the heart, until we face overload.
We do not want to eliminate stress, but we need to manage it so that it doesn't dominate our lives.
2. GET YOUR COMPANY ON THE CASE
Long hours and a macho culture are among the chief causes of workplace stress. The Health and Safety Executive launched a tough new code to reduce stress at work in December 2004. The code sets six standards, including increasing support and giving staff more control. Employers who ignore the standards are at risk of legal action.
Alan Barber, a former head of maths at East Bridgewater secondary school in Somerset, was awarded £70,000 after leaving with a stress-related illness. The case, which went to the House of Lords, established that an "autocratic and bullying style of leadership" that is "unsympathetic" to complaints of occupational stress is a factor that courts can take into account in deciding claims.
A survey by the mental health charity Mind found that the most stressed workers were teachers, social workers, call-centre workers, prison officers and the police. Public-sector workers suffered more stress than those in the private sector.
3. THE BEST CURES ARE FREE
The single most popular response to stress is to have a drink. This was mentioned by one respondent in three in the Samaritans survey, up from one in four in 2003. Similar proportions say that they watch television or listen to music.
While these may be pleasurable and relaxing at the end of the day, they are not the most effective remedies for stress. "Going for a short walk, doing stretching or breathing exercises, or just getting away from your desk would have a greater impact," says Neil Shah, the director of the Stress Management Society. Exercise also produces endorphins, the body's natural opiates, which boost mood.
Other measures include changing your attitudes, such as learning to accept what you cannot change, managing your time and agreeing with people some of the time. There are no pills or potions or magic cures for stress - notwithstanding the claims of some companies that sell them.