By Nicholas Chow
Paul is a senior executive who works in a global organisation and was posted to a senior role in Colombo early last year. Having worked in challenging roles before, Paul has some experience in managing stress, and found that his fitness routine in the gym helped him to calm down after a stressful day at work. Physical exercise provided the inner sanctum he needed to counter stress. However, six months after his posting to Colombo, he began to experience extreme work pressure, far beyond anything he had faced before.
Paul said, “I found suddenly that my fitness routine was no longer effective in helping me to de-stress. I felt overwhelmed. I lost confidence and even the simplest of tasks seemed like an insurmountable challenge.” Paul began to experience physical symptoms of numbness in the arms, and rapid heart rate. He went for a full physical medical check-up and the result came back inconclusive. It was then he realised that the physical symptoms were caused by the period of prolonged stress he was experiencing. This awareness helped him to understand the importance to maintain a balanced lifestyle that takes care of the mind, body and soul.
According to a report published by the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety, stress can be described as “the result of any emotional, physical, social, economic or other factors that require a response or change”. Stress can also be caused by events or situations that you might not expect would cause it. Therefore it is not surprising that there can be times when we might not be aware that we are experiencing stress.
Take Rena for instance. She was living her dream – a high-powered job that she loved in London, a city she loved and married to the man of her dreams. So why, after her marriage, was she often feeling pressured and edgy? After the initial honeymoon period, she found that living with her in-laws was very different to living with her parents. The demands, the unspoken expectations, and the criticism that she experienced made her feel very anxious about going home after work. Weekends no longer offered a reprieve, because at home she received constant lectures about the roles and responsibilities of a young wife and daughter-in-law. She began to seek refuge in her job, which although challenging, was something that gave her satisfaction. But when it was time to leave for home, she felt she had to leave her identity, self-confidence and self-esteem behind.
“Initially I did not know that I was stressed and when my physical health took a toll on me, like many people, I went to a physician who prescribed with me medication for my physical symptoms but did not address or acknowledge my stressful condition. It was after a few years of taking medication which did not help, that I decided to take charge and make changes in both my mental and physical health. I started by attending a program on stress management.” Rena now lives in Colombo and manages a very successful event management business. Looking back, she now recognises that it was the period of prolonged extreme stress that had caused her physical health to deteriorate.
According to Dr. Kayathri Periasamy, Consultant Physician of Healthy Life Clinic, not all stress is bad. A moderate level of stress often known as “challenge” or positive stress is good. Our body systems (the heart, blood vessels, immune systems, lungs, digestive system, sensory organs, and brain) are designed with a set of automatic responses to deal with stress. These psychological and physiological responses (fight or flight) are effective for the short-term, especially when faced with immediate danger.
However, our bodies deal with both short-term (acute) and long-term (chronic) stresses in the same way. This means that the bodies of those who experience chronic or continuous stress do not get the chance to “switch-off” and this can lead to health problems if not addressed.
Rozaine Cooray, a Business Psychologist and Founder of Forte Consultancy, Sri Lanka observed that some employees, especially senior executives tend to be reluctant to reveal or share that they are experiencing stress. This could be due to professional pride or out of concern that if such knowledge were shared, it could adversely impact their career. Rozaine highlighted the importance for self-care. Dr. Kayathri supported this view indicating that the first step to manage stress is self-awareness.
There are some common/general signs and symptoms that we can look out for. Some of these signs and symptoms are more common than you think:
Maintaining a positive mindset – like Paul and Rena – can help manage stress better. Dr Kayathri said that this could be helpful only if we take care of both our minds and bodies, but not one at the expense of the other. She said that when managing stress, a balanced approach that includes a healthy diet and regular exercise would be the most effective combination.
Rozaine suggested that the most practical (and probably most acceptable) approach would be to expand the popular physical health check-up to include a lifestyle assessment/interview to promote holistic mind and body wellness. Most of us tend to focus solely on physical health check-up, and tend to overlook that an assessment of our current lifestyles (to include stress level review) is equally important because prolonged exposure to stress can bring about serious physical health issues.
Dr. Kayathri indicated that work-related stress seemed to be a growing concern in Sri Lanka and it became even more important when coupled with some alarm bells about the health of Sri Lankans. In a research project on Metabolic Syndrome among Sri Lankan adults, it was reported that the prevalence of metabolic syndrome for Sri Lankan adults is 24.3% (one-fourth of the adult population). While the prevalence is similar to the prevalence of other regional South Asian countries, it is higher than that of other regional Asian countries such as: Singapore (17.7%), Taiwan (13.9%), Japan (7.8% and China (18.3%). Metabolic Syndrome is a group of risk factors, that when occurring together, increase the risk for coronary artery disease, stroke and type-2 diabetes. The reasons for the high prevalence in Sri Lanka are similar to other South Asian countries – urbanisation and mechanisation have led to a sedentary life-style and changes in dietary patterns. The report recommended promoting healthy dietary habits and physically active life-style as preventive measures but stressed that for these measures to be effective, they had to be adopted at individual, community and societal levels.
What can organisations do to help employees be more self-aware and to manage stress better? Rozaine shared that she is introducing an initiative that uses the team development or employee focus group workshops to include team stress assessment. Data collected anonymously can then be analysed by a qualified statistician to come up with cause, effects and potential solutions for organisations to consider implementing as part of their employee wellness program.
In a nutshell, managing stress requires each of us to take responsibility of our own well-being by learning to be more aware of the emotional and physical changes that can occur when we experience stress. Mind and body self-care can be an effective balanced approach. Organisations can do their bit by promoting the mind and body approach in their employee wellness program to include education/awareness programs to promote a healthy lifestyle, provide a platform for team stress assessment, employee assistance programme (providing confidential counselling and lifestyle coaching services) and a more comprehensive medical check-up plan that encompasses a mind and body assessment approach.
For Paul, it was his self-awareness and his balanced approach (of mind and body) that helped him to manage his stressful situation and for Rena, it was her positive mindset and realisation that she needed to take care of both her emotions and physical health that led to her regaining control over her life and the ability to manage stress.
(The writer is a Human Resources (HR) specialist in the financial services industry. He is currently attached to a global financial services organisation in Colombo. Prior to venturing into the Human Resources arena, Nicholas has worked in retail banking as well as being a relationship manager for commercial banking. In HR, Nicholas has held a number of country and regional roles including recruitment, resourcing, graduate program management, employee relations, performance development, talent management, and succession planning. Nicholas is currently pursuing a professional Counselling qualification with the Australian Institute of Professional Counsellors (AIPC).)