When the strain of work becomes too much to bear

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STRESS is increasingly seen as a ticking time bomb with regard to our nation’s health.

According to the latest figures stress now accounts for around 40 per cent of all work-related illness, with each person suffering, on average, 24 days off sick.

Stress, per se, is not an illness, of course. “The term stress is hard to define,” says Jay Brewer, head of physiology at Nuffield Health. “For some it can be the annoyance of a traffic jam, while for others it can be a crippling feeling that sends the body and mind into shock.

“Stress is seen as a bad thing to be avoided, but actually small or particular amounts can be beneficial. Good levels of stress encourage us to problem-solve and provide invigorating challenge.”

Certainly for many, a job with zero stress would be rather boring. But at what point does stress become a health problem?

Joy Reymond, head of rehabilitation at financial protection insurers Unum, points out that we often begin to experience stress as a problem when we feel overwhelmed by the demands we’re facing. “Sustained and severe stress may lead into a mental health condition like depression or anxiety, and it can exacerbate pre-existing mental health problems,” she says.

These problems can manifest themselves physically, too. In the short term, this can mean poor sleep, increased susceptibility to infections (ever noticed how you’re constantly “run down” when you’ve been rushing all over the place?) and mood changes.

Stress is increasingly being recognised as an important factor in major illness and women are known for being better than men at talking about their problems, whereas men are more likely to turn to alcohol or drugs, for instance. Women are also more likely than men to tell their doctor that they are struggling with stress or any mental health problem.

Colin Penning, external affairs manager at the Men’s Health Forum, points out that men are more likely to die earlier and from stress-associated causes.

This is not a battle of the sexes though: who is more stressed, who has the heaviest burden on their shoulders? It’s about recognising that work-related stress can be an issue for all of us.

“Men are still twice as likely than women to be in full-time work across their whole life than women,” says Penning. “The role of being the masculine breadwinner is an ingrained thing. Rightly or wrongly, this is still a big issue for men.”

The ‘breadwinner’ stereotype may be a factor in work-related stress in men, but it’s not the only one. “Pressures may escalate through fears of redundancy and poor performance, leading to excessive working hours and constant worry,” says Reymond, pointing out that greater levels of stress have been reported in recent years.

Of course, increased job insecurity is part of the fallout of the recession. “One factor could be that many of us now work in very fast-paced, high-pressure environments with long hours and increasingly blurred between work and home life. This can make it easy for stress to mount up, especially when people feel unable to raise the issue with their employer,” says Reymond.

“The increasing pace of work leads to increased expectations on employees; likewise the rise of mobile technology means that we’re always ‘on’, even after the end of the work day.

“One growing trend is for people to work on their email through the evening and prior to going to bed; this can make it difficult to sleep, and poor sleep patterns can compound the stress associated with high workloads.

“But the message is for employers and employees to be aware of stress and make sure people have support when they need it.”