Last year, there were 10.4 million work days lost to stress (HSE Figure 2011/2012), costing the UK economy alone a staggering £6.5bn and what’s more it’s rising!

Now, we all need a certain amount of pressure, for instance to be able to run a race or to be able to stay alert and awake during an important meeting or to be able to meet deadlines and targets, but prolonged and intense pressure can lead to stress and affects our physical and psychological health.

Research reveals that the open-plan office is a hot bed of stress and this may give some insight as to the reasons why so much of it occurs in the workplace; indeed there is enough evidence to support this theory which reveals that open plan offices make employees less motivated, less happy, with less job satisfaction and therefore less productive.  Contributing factors are lack of privacy, and environmental temperature but it’s also the high noise levels from ringing telephones, conversations, pinging emails and machinery being cited as the most irritating noises.  Interestingly, it has been revealed that the over 45’s tend to be more sensitive to these environmental issues and their productivity is affected the most by them.

In fact, people who work in open plan offices take 62% more sick days than those who work in their own enclosed space (Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment and Health).  Some of this could be down to the fact that germs do spread more easily within these environments, but it is also likely that because open plan offices are a more stressful place within which to work, the stress therefore increases the risk of becoming unwell as immunity is lowered.  A perpetuating cycle.

‘Hot Desking’ is another issue.   Originally thought that it would create greater efficiency and teamwork, again studies have found that the opposite is true and is yet another area of increased stress.  As well as the ever re-curing privacy issue, people also need to be surrounded by personal items such as family photographs and plants.

In the current economic climate, other factors also play a part and with employees facing more job losses, longer working hours and restructuring within companies, there is more insecurity and much more to prove which creates an environment based on fear.  As a result, many (employees) continue working even when they are on holiday and packed in amongst the sun cream are mobiles and laptops.  Some see this as beneficial; it allows them to keep up with emails so that they don’t feel quite so inundated and overwhelmed when they return to the office but even if they are laying in the sunshine by the pool with a cocktail in hand whilst checking messages and perhaps responding to them, the mind is switched ‘on’ in to work mode.

As a generalisation, ‘modern living’ has a lot to do with increased stress levels too.  With the onset of internet, mobile telephones, emails and social media people are now ‘switched on’ 24-7.  There are even those who believe that if you’re not available to answer emails at any time day or night then you don’t deserve the business and are likely to miss out!

In ‘modern living’ people burn out because their ‘fight or flight’ mechanism is constantly switched on and off.  Unlike caveman days when people could run away from an animal, you can’t run away from a difficult or stressful telephone call, meeting or traffic jam and even if you think you’re relaxing by watching a movie – invariably these are loud and action-packed and again the ‘fight or flight’ mechanism is constantly switched on and off.  This is what leads to burn out.

This is why at different periods across a working day, people will find themselves simply staring out of a window or daydreaming aimlessly whilst staring at a computer monitor.  This is a signal from the body that it needs a break away from everything.  Invariably, there are those who will take the opportunity to reach out for a cigarette, coffee or even alcohol when in fact what the body requires is to be quiet and still for a minimum of 5-10 minutes a couple of times a day with no distractions.

It’s important to know that the mind and body are connected and not two separate entities.  Our thoughts are chemical and therefore create illness in many forms; IBS being a particularly common one but there are many more including depression and cancer.  Stress is undoubtedly making the nation sick and at great cost to the economy to boot.

Everyone needs time to just ‘be’.  Humans are not designed to be on the go 24-7 and it’s worth remembering that STRESS IMPAIRS INTELLECTUAL PERFORMANCE.

Tracey Barraclough


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