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Let's Talk About Stress: A Main Cause Of Health Problems In The UK

28/10/2016 10:22 | Updated 03 November 2016

Stress in the UK has reached record levels and gets worse every day. But stress has been in the news, and across the headlines of major publications, for a long time before this was a known fact.

We have heard about the importance of stress management for a little more than two decades, and long-term studies of stress in the population have seen stress steadily rise during that time, as Carnegie Mellon University's long term study , which covered more than three decades, proved.

A recent survey conducted by Trades Union Congress (TUC), coinciding with World Mental Health Day, suggests, "70% of workplaces now have a problem with stress." Further, the union organization's survey of around 1,000 professionals found that "stress has increased across all areas of the UK" with the top three professions registered as the most stressed included the central government (93%), education (89%) and health services (82%)."

The takeaway from this survey, and the recent World Mental Health Day, is clear: stress is becoming a bigger and more widespread problem across the country. If we don't address it quickly, it will become a ticking time bomb affecting not only workplace productivity, which is the already 18 points lower than the G7 average even though we have the longest working hours in Europe , but also the overall health of the nation, as we begin to understand the adverse effects of chronic stress on the body. The long-term presence of stress -- and the resulting overexposure to cortisol and other stress hormones -- can disrupt almost every body function and process. It can put you at increased risk of numerous health problems, including generalised anxiety disorder, depression, digestive problems, headaches, heart disease, sleep problems, weight gain, and memory and concentration impairment.

Combating Stress levels rising across the UK
Of course, it's impossible to lead a totally stress free life. In fact, a small dose of stress and our body's healthy reaction to said stress mean we are mentally and physically capable of dealing with the challenges of everyday life, and it can help us compete and thrive. In recent years, we have seen a growing emphasis on improving mental health in order to become fully healthy. The recent World Mental Health Day celebrated the global communities work toward helping everyone know how to recognize and control stress, manage and improve their mental health, and help those struggling with mental health illness.

Given this year's theme and the coinciding TUC survey, we are now presented with an excellent opportunity for business to finally take the issue of workplace stress as seriously as physical health.

As we are all now fully aware, stress is a major issue for employees and employers alike, and work-related burnout has been for too long accepted as an inevitable outcome on the path to achieving success. Yet, when we prioritise health and wellbeing, academic evidence proves performance increases and preventable chronic diseases can be reduced, making large savings to healthcare spending and insurance claims.

As an example, a study conducted with Volvo's managerial team showed that the benefits of stress interventions (in their case, based on meditation) could enhance decision-making skills and improve their ability solve complex problems.

As the TUC identifies, burnout is a big issue. Sadly, few people see it coming and tend to ignore the warning signs by continuing to work long hours past their most productive points, ruminate (think about work at home, answer emails, etc.) and don't put in place interventions to help with recovery from stress (without which, inflammation and disease creep in).

Time For A Change
How can we empower people to understand, manage and respond to stress, and lessen the effect it has on their work and personal life? We at BioBeats, together with AXA/PPP and BNP Paribas, recently conducted a study that looked at how digital/mobile interventions could both help monitor stress so it doesn't become mental illness and causes absence from work, and how those same interventions could help individuals manage stress in the workplace and at home. During this study, we saw several important factors through the data:

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Photo Credit: BioBeats

People's perceived stress and phyisiological stress differ
During the week, the BNPP study participants answered questions through the BioBeats mobile app , which also tested their physiological stress. Whilst at the beginning of the week users reported higher perceived stress and their bodies reported lower physical stress, towards the end of the week the inverted, indicating that although people's bodies were really feeling stressed, user perception was that they felt less stressed. This is typical of the bias people suffer from in high-stress environments, where they tend to ignore the body's signs of stress and plow through.

Another significant finding was that we could begin to classify, at the cardiovascular data level, people who obssessed about work (rumination) whilst at home, as different in both cardiovascular profile (Heart Rate Variability, an indicator of stress resilience and recovery) and perceived stress. Hi 'ruminators' declared much higher perceived stress throughout the week, and had significantly different cardiovascular profiles (lower HRV). The link between rumination and cardiovascular disease, and deficits in executive functioning (decision making) have been proven recently , and we now know how to capture this in the workplace using mobile/wearable solutions, which could help build solutions to help people manage stress in a much more profound way than previously available.

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Photo Credit: BioBeats

What can I do in my business?
It's time we enable our colleagues, friends, family and ourselves to meaningfully manage our self-care and promote advocacy around mental health and stress. Armed with valuable information about their mental health, individuals will be more inclined to use that insight to better understand their daily patterns and form a more profound overall picture of their wellbeing while being proactive in responding to the stressors in their life.

We need to move on from the Quantified Self being about fitness (without ignoring it!) to being about mental health and emotional resilience. We must move on from AI helping us optimise processes to helping us optimise the human experience and condition.

To do this, you can start in a number of ways. Talk to your friends and colleagues and within the workplace about mental health, the effects of stress, and how to combat them. A great place to get informed is this article by the Mayo Clinic . Then, try an app that can help you manage stress directly. There are many good ones, including Headspace and Calm, and our own, Hear and Now , which can coach you on techniques to handle stress at the physical and mental level by using machine learning and biofeedback.

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