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How to stop stress killing your employees | The World Weekly

In April last year, Li Jianhua, a 48-year old Chinese banking regulator who had been working all night to finish a report before sunrise, suddenly dropped dead. The Chinese Banking Regulatory Commission (CBRC) Management Committee confirmed that he had worked himself to death.

Mr. Li’s case is far from unique. According to the China Youth Daily, around 600,000 Chinese people a year die from working too hard. On average, that is over 1,600 people a day.

“Microblogging website Weibo is filled with complaints about stressed-out lives and chatter about reports of others, young and old, worked to death: a 24-year-old junior employee at Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide Inc., a 25-year-old auditor at PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP; one of the chief designers of China’s next-generation fighter planes at state-run AVIC Shenyang Aircraft Corp,” Shai Oster reported for Bloomberg in June 2014.

Jeff Kingston, director of Asian Studies at the Japan campus of Temple University in Tokyo, explained that China is still a rising economy and people are still buying into that hardworking ethos. “They haven’t yet achieved the affluenza that led to questioning in Japan of norms and values,” he told Bloomberg.

But the deadly and debilitating effects of stress in the workplace are not unique to China. In August 2013, Moritz Erhardt, a 21-year-old Bank of America Merrill Lynch intern was found dead in a shower at his London flat after working for 72 hours in a row and having an epileptic seizure. Although there was no proof that the seizure would not have happened anyway, the coroner did say that fatigue could have been a trigger and the German student’s death sparked calls for an inquiry into excessive working hours in the City.

According to the UK’s Health and Safety Executive (HSE), in 2011/12, 428,000 people reported work-related stress at a level they believed was making them ill. These figures suggest that 40% of all work-related illness are down to stress. Common effects of stress include headaches, muscle tension, chest pain, fatigue, sleep problems, changes to sex drive, stomach upsets, anxiety, restlessness, anger, lack of motivation, depression, over or under eating, smoking, drinking, drug abuse and social withdrawal. The National Health Service (NHS) reports that psychological problems, including stress, anxiety and depression, are behind one in five visits to a GP. 

“Every single day highly intelligent, highly motivated high achievers are breaking down,” Anna Pinkerton, a therapist and author of ‘How to Smile Again: Recovery for those in public life but in private pain’ told The World Weekly. “These high achievers have skilfully adapted to turn a blind eye to their physical and mental well-being. Often unconscious decisions, and 'unconscious drivers' - ancient familial emotional templates - which have led them to success are secretly hurtling them towards complete breakdown.”

Ms. Pinkerton explains that people carry on regardless through fear of humiliation, of making a stand or, ironically, of weakening. But fear is not a long-term motivator. It will, she says, cause people to avoid taking care and ultimately perpetuate stress, exacerbating mental health strains and creating a highly stressed “de-humanised” state.

“I believe that the individuals who are breaking under this pressure of 'de-humanisation' are the very people you actually need at the heart of business,” Ms. Pinkerton said. “Those who have hearts and souls, and who have cared enough to give their all until they couldn't anymore.”

Indeed, the CBRC praised Li Jianhua’s “firm ideals and beliefs”, his loyalty “to the cause of the Party and the people” and his “unremitting struggle” and “sacrifice”. For his work, Mr. Li made the ultimate sacrifice. But there are ways to stop things going that far.

Anna Pinkerton is an author and therapist

Life coach Suzy Greaves says one of the key skills to managing workplace stress is knowing how to say no. "I’m constantly challenging clients who say they have no choice but to overwork," she said. "I coach people to become empowered and believe they have a choice. Have confidence in your ‘no’ when you think it's the right decision, even though it may not be the most popular one. In the long term, your ability to say no will be one of your most valuable attributes."

Ms. Pinkerton agrees that living on this knife-edge often comes with a delusion that there is no other way, especially for high achievers pushing themselves to their physical and mental limits. She identifies five myths that perpetuates corporate stress:

“Perpetuating these myths is expensive,” Ms. Pinkerton said. “Rewarding denial of basic human needs, and not valuing self-care, is breaking people. This is not a sophisticated way of operating. Ignorance of the care of the inner-self is leading to anxiety, depression, substance misuse, trauma, and sometimes, complete breakdown. 'Starvation of the self' in order to elicit superhuman hours, inhumane diets, poor physical and mental health is not sustainable. If we perpetuate desperation and not contentment in the workplace, we reward the very mindsets and behaviours that are causing an insidious sickness. This pervasive culture is dangerously archaic.”

While Ms. Greaves, cited by the NHS, advocates a bottom-up approach to tackling workplace stress in which employees must recognise their limits and clearly communicate them to their employers, Ms. Pinkerton believes the answer must begin with the employer, advocating passion and kindness from the top down. “CEOs, managers and HR practitioners should demonstrate sophisticated self-consideration and care, and encourage employee engagement – this is almost a health and wellbeing policy in action,” she said. “If you make kindness core, you keep your staff well and happy.”

She added: “Corporate kindness is a 'top down' must, where the meeting of basic human needs leads the way to a healthy and happy workforce. To do the opposite, you crush the very creativity you have chosen to employ.”

Examples of simple self-care in action that she advocates include: Allowing employees time to have lunch, changing corporate dialogue from cruelty to kindness, encouraging employees to take small breaks from their computer screens, ensuring employees are using the toilet when they need to; promoting healthy solutions, such as walking to work, jogging, going to the gym, or listening to music; helping employees to get professional support through occupational health schemes and not waiting until it's too late.

Some companies are beginning to recognise that prevention is better than cure when it comes to work-related stress and are placing health on a par with people’s careers and finances. Last month, Alexander Associates Group launched 'The Wealth Medical', designed to be a comprehensive assessment of people’s financial wellbeing coupled with the option of a same-day supplementary health check at the Wellington Hospital in London. The company’s stated aim is to provide a holistic, 360 view of people’s financial and physical health. ‘The Wealth Medical’ was launched in response to a recent study by the Mental House Foundation which revealed 54% of British adults attribute money and work worries as the main causes of stress.

“We are often asked, ‘when can I stop working?; are my children provided for if I’m hit by the proverbial bus?; will HMRC be the main benefactor when I die?; are my funds/portfolio being managed effectively?; am I paying too much for my insurances?’” David Alexander, Alexander Associates Group’s CEO, said. “The Wealth Medical collates all the financial information in one place and provides a clear summary of areas of concern. This report empowers clients to make decisions now and for their long-term security.”

But money is not the only thing that is important in one’s working life. The latest studies suggest that while, in general, those with more money are broadly speaking happier than those who struggle to get by, wealth alone doesn’t provide any guarantee of a good life. “What matters a lot more than a big income is how people spend it,” Andrew Blackman writes for The Wall Street Journal. “For instance, giving money away makes people a lot happier than lavishing it on themselves. And when they do spend money on themselves, people are a lot happier when they use it for experiences like travel than for material goods.”

This idea of experience is key to Ms. Pinkerton’s advice and fundamental to that is a basic humanity.

“The most intelligent minds are often numb to the basic need for things to sustain them, but those same intelligent minds must be employed to spread corporate kindness and end the silent brutality of stress before it is too late,” she told The World Weekly. “Look to enlightened CEOs who are shining a light on how you get the best from your employees whilst maintaining a human connection and whilst allowing their basic human needs. Make a shift to human experience being at the centre of the corporation. It is not easy in this climate – it takes courage. It takes consistent conviction for a CEO to make a stand, but it is within our best minds, that this sophisticated shift must take place.”

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