HR and Health & Safety
Let's talk about the sabre-toothed tiger in the room

Rich Ellis explains the difference between good stress and bad stress and how to better manage your stress to better manage your business.

Go to your preferred search engine and type in stress. Among the millions of results, you'll find numerous reports about the effects of stress in the workplace and at home. Stress is a topic close to my heart, because it's one with which many of clients are struggling, and assisting them with stress management is a significant part of my day-to-day work.

A bit of "the right kind of stress" could actually be a good thing

It's not all bad news. In certain situations, "good stress" is our ally. For example, you're crossing the road and a car unexpectedly pulls out in front of you. You need to take evasive action – fast! That's when your body's fight or flight hormones kick in, sugar is released into the blood stream and your muscles do their work. This all happens in a flash. This good stress is short-lived and quickly fades, although you probably feel a bit jittery for a while.

These innate responses are pre-programmed into us, and have been since humans first walked the earth. Our early ancestors needed these abilities for survival – both whilst hunting and being hunted. Nowadays what with supermarkets and fridge-freezers, there's generally less need for us to hunt, so these basic instincts have become less crucial.

So that's good stress. Now, we need to turn our focus to the bad stuff… 

95% of all dis-ease is caused by stress1

The faster our digital world moves, the greater the expectations seem to be for us to get more done in less time. For many people, achieving a work-life balance is an elusive notion.

We hold the technology to do almost anything at any time literally in the palm of our hands, and it can be increasingly hard to put the phone down and switch off our brains. One last check of those work e-mails. Deadlines looming. Staffing issues. Concerns about cashflow. These all impact on our personal relationships, and family time is squeezed.

This is bad stress.

It could be lurking just around the corner, and if not tackled, become pervasive and prolonged. On a chemical level, our bodies don't recognise that work-related stress isn't a sabre-toothed tiger chasing us for its dinner. Those clever yet non-distinguishing chemical processes create the same fight or flight environment for our bodies. And so it remains.

If any stresses keep gnawing away at us for any length of time, the condition becomes chronic and the metabolic consequences can be severe. Anatomically speaking, your brain's hypothalamus, pituitary gland and adrenal gland are in constant overdrive. They're perpetually in that state of releasing those fight or flight hormones. Sooner or later they feel overwhelmed and exhausted – and so do you.

The situation is exacerbated of course if you have more than one stress trigger. For example, a challenging employee (especially when part of only a small business) can easily cause disharmony, both for the manager and the rest of the team. This worry carries over into your relationship, which puts home life under pressure. Before you know it, you have enough emotional stressors and, as far as your body's chemistry is concerned, that tiger is in hot pursuit.

What we can do to help ourselves

Stress management is a huge subject and everyone's circumstances are different, not least because the sources of their stress are different. Environmental issues, lifestyle, gut-related problems – these can all put stress on the body and mind. In the first instance, I would strongly urge anyone experiencing overwhelm to talk to someone and seek qualified help, of one kind or another. It's important to properly investigate the causes and get an appropriate action plan in place. The goal should always be to reduce, manage and remedy the stress.

In very general terms, it's vital that we learn to recognise the symptoms and address them sooner rather than later.

Pause for a moment and consider how you're feeling right now. How's your breathing? Believe it or not, most of us don't breathe properly – shallow instead of deep, and from the chest instead of the belly. 

As part of their stress management programme, I encourage my clients to be mindful of their breathing, and I share simple techniques that they can learn and put into practice immediately. You'd be amazed how much difference this can make.

Mindful breathing may be supported by gentle neck and shoulder exercises – which can be done at your desk, if necessary!

Business owners have an important role to play

Under health & safety law, employers are required to try and take care of their staff's physical and mental well-being. Stress management is certainly a part of this.

A few years ago, IRD came to an agreement with Exercise New Zealand to introduce the SMEAEP (Stress Management Exercise Association Endorsed Programme) initiative. SMEAEPs are delivered by registered, qualified health & fitness professionals, and may include exercise programmes, nutritional advice and lifestyle coaching. As well as helping them fulfil their moral and legal obligations to their staff, SMEAEP offers employers another key benefit, as it's not liable for Fringe Benefit Tax unlike, for example, a gym membership.

The initiative certainly seems to be working, with some sources reporting a return on their investment of as much as 1 to 3. And that's a win-win for everyone.

Rich Ellis is an award-winning trainer and health coach, and a registered provider of SMEAEP. For more information about Rich and the Programme, visit

1National Institute of Health 2010

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