In theory ... Stress

Emma De Vita's weekly look at management-speak

It's official - stress has become a workplace epidemic. In March 2007, research commissioned by insurance company UnumProvident and carried out by analyst Oxford Economics found that 10 million working days were lost because of stress, depression and anxiety in 2005/06. Accepted as an unfortunate by-product of modern life, stress is suffered by most in silence. But a minority of high-flying employees wear their stress as a badge of honour. Bizarrely, the busier you claim to be, the higher your perceived importance. The inability to switch off has become the norm. No time to eat lunch? That makes you important. No time to go to the loo? You must be very important. Sleep under your desk every night? Why, you must be the boss.

This modern malady has become, quite literally, a headache for managers, and nowhere more so than in the voluntary sector, where lack of money, time and the burden of bureaucracy conspire to bring on heart palpitations in the most stoic of workers. Put upon from above, troubled by those they manage, middle managers are particularly susceptible to stress because they have the least control over their work.

It comes as no surprise, then, that stress-busting has become a lucrative industry. Books, courses and conferences offer a range of techniques, from meditating at your desk to taking your frustration out on a punchbag.

But there is a flipside to all of this. If there is negative stress, there is also positive stress. In fact, the fight-or-flight reaction that we experience during times of anxiety is completely natural. When our adrenal glands kick into action, we are primed to cope with anything laid at our feet. We make decisions quickly, become imbued with a sense of excitement and experience a sense of urgency that helps us get stuff done. The trouble arises when what should be a sprint to the finish turns into an arduous marathon of anxiety, where fighting or taking flight prove equally useless remedies. Better instead to bury your head in the sand.

- Emma De Vita is a senior section editor on Management Today.


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