A degree of temporary stress is not only unavoidable in our working lives, it can also be very useful - it helps to keep us focused and raise our performance levels. However, as is now well understood, prolonged and excessive amounts of stress can be extremely damaging to our overall health. But how do we recognise when this mental and emotional state has ceased to be an ally and has instead become a threat?
"A person suffers from stress when they are faced with external demands which they feel are beyond their coping capabilities," explains Dr Rhoda Yuen, programme director at Aging & Better Care (ABC), a self-sustainable non-profit organisation set up by a small group of health-care professionals and business executives. "Physically they may then experience difficulty in sleeping and suffer chronic colds and infections, unexplained fatigue, and intestinal and skin problems."
Yuen, a psychologist who has worked in the field of mental health for over 30 years, adds that the most serious psychological symptoms are depression - where people lose interest in things, can't concentrate and their memory begins to suffer - and anxiety, where they experience panic attacks and a sense of being unable to cope.
Alongside the toll that stress takes on the well-being and happiness of the individual sufferer is the detrimental effect it has on the business they work for - such as through a decline in the quality of their work or through sporadic or long-term absences from the office.
"An estimated 75 to 90 per cent of visits to primary-care doctors are for stress-related complaints, which are manifested as physical illnesses," Yuen says.
Those at the top of the career ladder are generally under the most pressure. "The leaders are the ones who have to continually attend to details and, at the same time, stand back and look at the big picture," Yuen says. "Their decisions affect many people, but because of their busy working lives, they are constantly distracted and don't have the time to attend to their own needs. This can affect their performance, as well as their physical health."
Also susceptible are members of what Yuen calls the "sandwich generation", who tend to be middle managers. "These are the people who are 'sandwiched' in many ways. At work they are caught between their bosses and the staff they need to supervise, and at home they not only have their children, but also their parents who they need to look after," she says.
In Yuen's experience, most people suffering from high levels of stress cope by numbing their feelings. "They go on buying sprees or self-medicate with drink or soft drugs to get rid of those unpleasant feelings," she says. "Some just work harder and harder. This might make them feel more in control until, in the end, something breaks down. Something quite big has to hit them before they realise there is something that they really need to attend to. Most of us like to use avoidance tactics until the problem grows too big and blows up in our faces."
ABC's goal is to help people recognise the warning signals for stress and give them some tools to help them release the pressure. "We want to help them cultivate some space so they will be able to not only attend to the external demands on them but be able to turn inwards and learn to be more aware of their inner landscape and workings," Yuen says.
"Leaders are always short of time, so they are unable to learn a whole bunch of techniques which may or may not be helpful. We want to offer them some really specific, effective and easy-to-learn techniques."
ABC has partnered with Classified Post's Leadership Development Centre to help tackle the growing problem of stress among local business leaders and middle managers.