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June 2005

Thousands of years ago, ‘pressure at work’ meant fleeing from invading marauders or battling woolly mammoths. Stress prepared cave men and women for ‘fight or flight’ situations, and helped them survive such trials; Neil Shah from the Stress Management Society offers his advice on how to manage an age old problem.

So stress isn’t a new problem. However, today it is office politics, traffic jams, overwork and late nights that cause our levels to rise. Whereas cave dwellers burnt off the stress through that eventual fight or flight, we don’t reach that final stage. As a result, we are increasingly all wound up with nowhere to go!

Look after your body
When stressed, we reach for quick fixes – stimulants like coffee, or foods high in fat or sugar. But this diet compounds the problem. Chocolate gives an initial sugar and caffeine buzz, but leaves you weary. Salty crisps dehydrate the body and brain and bring on fatigue. High fat meals raise stress hormones and keep them high.

Boost your immune system
To beat stress, you need a strong body. And that means a powerful immune system boosted by plenty of vitamins B, C and E together with minerals magnesium and zinc.

The best source of these nutrients is from food, rather than supplements. So eat a balanced diet of meat, nuts, seeds, fresh fruit and vegetables and oily fish. If you need to snack during the day, try pumpkin or sunflower seeds and fruit.

Fresh organic food is the best source. If you can’t get fresh, frozen vegetables are a reasonable alternative as much of their nutritional content is retained.

Eat a ‘rainbow’
There are 350,000 different forms of edible plants on this planet. How many do you eat in a week? A variety is essential as different types and colours of food contain different vitamins and minerals. And your body can actually get stressed by trying to break down the same food time and time again. So eat ‘a rainbow’ of food colours instead.

Drink water
If you want to deal with stress, drink water. It hydrates every part of the body and brain and helps you to better cope with stressful situations. A good rule is to take a few sips every 15 minutes. The best source is room-temperature still water bought in glass bottles (some plastic bottles can leach chemicals into the water inside) or use a jug filter system that you fill from the tap.

Avoid stimulants
Drink a cup of coffee and your body is on high alert for a long time. Caffeine stays in the body for six hours before it starts to deplete, all the time triggering the release of the stress hormone cortisol, preparing you for fight or flight and compounding your stress problem. Caffeine also speeds up the digestive processes in the body. So no matter how well you are eating, your body may not have enough time to absorb the nutrients in your diet.

If you want to keep your blood pressure low, avoid salt. Sugar, nicotine and alcohol also stimulate adrenaline in the body, another hormone released to prepare you for fight or flight. Chocolate contains sugar and caffeine – a double hit! Such stimulants can trigger a stress reaction even when no major external stress is present.

For more information about good diet, consult a nutritionist who will be able to pinpoint the best approach for you.

Use a stress management technique
Once you have a healthy body, stress management techniques really start to work well. New methods are coming to the fore, offering exciting opportunities for HR professionals.

Central to this is the concept of ‘changing your state’. Stress makes your heart beat faster and your breathing become shallow. So aim to reverse that process through deep breathing, stretching or physical activity.

Human beings were designed to move, not sit on chairs. So exercise is an essential part of good body function. Not only does it keep the heart healthy and get oxygen into the system, but it helps deplete stress hormones and releases mood-enhancing endorphins, which help us cope with stress better.

Many companies are now launching travel plans encouraging staff to walk or cycle to work or use public transport (which usually involves a walk somewhere along the route). Others are launching lunchtime walking groups. Both are great ways of introducing a little exercise for chair-bound staff.

Breathing and stretching
Yoga has been used for centuries to induce a state of calm. Many companies run yoga sessions at lunchtime or after work. However now there is another type of yoga which can be used directly in the office. ‘Desk’ or ‘office’ yoga centres around stretching and balancing the body in very simple and unobtrusive ways. It also teaches breathing techniques including alternate nostril breathing which balances the levels of serotonin in the brain, helping promote feelings of happiness.

Relaxation techniques
An excellent way to relax is through meditation, creative visualisation and self hypnosis. It’s a very simple technique to learn and can be taught to individuals or groups. A few minutes in a deeply relaxed state induced by self-hypnosis is the equivalent of several hours sleep, and can be used practically anywhere, from sitting at a desk to riding the bus home. Any qualified hypnotherapist can teach this technique to staff. See www.general-hypnotherapy-register.com for listings in your area.

Stress monitoring tools and awareness days
Science is making stress measurement increasingly easy at work. One product now available is a 1cm square LCD thermometer. Press your finger to the square for a few seconds, and it changes colour depending on how stressed you are. The science behind the stress square is simple. When we are relaxed, blood flows freely through the body. However, when we are ready for fight or flight, then blood is diverted to the muscles and essential organs, which means that our fingers cool.

Such devices can be stuck on mouse mats or desks and provide a great talking point for staff. As they can be used again and again, they are a simple stress management tool that lasts.

They are also being used as part of stress awareness campaigns within companies that might include awareness days with speakers, practical sessions on self-hypnosis or visits from therapists.

Neil Shah, founder of the Stress Management Society

Without a doubt. On a professional level, employers should be keen to encourage a healthy lifestyle and a good work/life balance. The results are lower levels of staff sickness and turnover. Morale improves and you become an ‘employer of choice’. In addition, prevention has to be better than cure because you can’t always cure the damage that stress does to the human body.

For more information on tackling stress, contact www.stress.org.uk or call T: 08701 999 235.

Sun 3 Apr 2005

Under pressure: headaches and muscular pains are common ailments put down to stress. But the film Falling Down takes stress to the extreme when Michael Douglas’s character cracks and takes off on a gun rampage.

‘I FELT incredibly alone," says Feza Sengul. "I couldn’t understand what was happening to me." With piles of work mounting up, deadlines looming and ever-increasing pressure from unsympathetic bosses, the 25-year-old was suffering from stress.

After months of constant headaches, sleepless nights, alienating his friends and low morale, he woke one morning last year and decided he could not carry on.

Sengul, a recruitment specialist from Cardiff, quit his job and moved to Harrow, Middlesex, after the stress of his work became too much for him to handle.

He is not alone. Recent figures have shown that stress-related illnesses are the most common reason for people taking time off work. Roughly one in five workers in Scotland now think their jobs are highly stressful.

High levels of stress are believed to lead to a range of health problems including muscle pain, headaches, digestive problems, heart attacks and cancer.

And employers are beginning to spend millions in a bid to cut the harm it can do to their workforce.

Not everyone is sympathetic, however. According to an occupational health expert due to speak in Edinburgh this week, Sengul and his fellow sufferers are suffering from a delusion: it’s all in their imagination.

Professor Mike O’Donnell, chief medical officer at insurance firm UnumProvident, claims people who say they are stressed are talking themselves into feeling unwell.

He believes growing concerns about stress in the workplace have caused people to expect to fall ill when they begin to feel under pressure.

UnumProvident insure companies against loss of income when employees sign off sick from work. And O’Donnell claims workers are using stress as a smokescreen for taking time off.

But for thousands of people like Sengul, the view that stress is not a real medical condition is a worry. It reflects a more widely held view in society that it is merely a sign of weakness.

O’Donnell, who is speaking at the Edinburgh International Science Festival on Tuesday, argues that stress is not a simple health and safety issue.

"The whole concept of stress is actually quite harmful," he says. "People treat it as a health and safety issue in the same way as they would with asbestos or lead. But unlike these things where you can actually identify health effects in people, with stress there is no objective measure of it.

"Some people find working to deadlines invigorating while others can’t cope so it is difficult to say what is a dangerous level of exposure."

O’Donnell believes a "stress culture" has developed which causes people to convince themselves they are ill.

"There is also compelling evidence that talking about stress and teaching people to worry about it may actually cause them to fall ill by creating an expectation of illness," he says. "It is a bit like a negative placebo effect."

Figures from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) show more than 105 million days are lost in the UK due to stress, accounting for 11% of all absence from work.

A third of all sick claims by teachers in Scotland are caused by job-related stress, leading to more than 200,000 lost school days - the equivalent of every teacher in the country taking seven days off work.

Civil servants take an average of two weeks off sick every year citing stress as the main reason, and two out of every five police retirements are due to ill health thought to be brought about by the stresses and strains of their job.

Research also shows growing numbers of teenagers suffering from stress and anxiety.

Stress has now taken over from the "bad back" as the most common reason given for absence from work. But some public health experts believe misconceptions surrounding what stress really is are leading to a sick note epidemic.

A recent study by Norwich Union Healthcare revealed GPs issue more than 1.3 million questionable sick notes a year in Scotland.

Doctors claim they feel under pressure from patients to sign sick notes. They receive more than 1,013 requests to sign patients off work north of the Border compared to just 577 from their colleagues in England and Wales.

And HSE figures show the majority of people signed off are claiming job-related stress as the cause.

Doctors often simply prescribe medication like anti-depressants to help their patients deal with stress.

But Dr Ewan Macdonald, head of the Healthy Working Lives Research Group at Glasgow University, believes stress is to often confused with other mental illnesses.

"We are facing an epidemic of stress where people use it to describe any form of discomfort they have in their lives," he said. "In reality, the stress people experience at work has changed little compared to people during the 1920s depression and the Second World War.

"But like back pain we are seeing people looking for a medical label that justifies illness behaviour and that they can use as a crutch.

"Stress itself is not harmful - without it people have no drive. Distress is harmful and that is what can lead to clinical anxiety and depression."

Scotland on Sunday columnist Magnus Linklater will also be taking part in the debate. He will argue that stress can have a positive effect in people’s lives and that by trying to eradicate it for fear of falling ill we risk losing those benefits.

He said: "Stress is being used as an excuse for anything and everything, but without it life would be very boring. It is an essential part of life that promotes activity and is a way of gearing up both the mind and the body.

"The government is increasingly accepting stress as an illness and as a result it is repeatedly and gratuitously used as an excuse for society to hide behind. Looking back to jobs I have done which have been most obviously packed with stress, they have been some of the most creative periods of my life."

But for many, stress can be a crippling condition which leaves them teetering on the brink of depression. Pressure on sufferers can build up to a point where they can no longer cope, forcing them to leave their jobs and feel isolated from their friends and family.

Michael Douglas’s character in the hit movie Falling Down displayed the more extreme results of stress where it can ultimately lead to a complete breakdown. In the film, Douglas suddenly cracks one day while waiting in one too many traffic jams before rampaging across the city with a gun.

For those who have actually suffered from stress, the reality can be far less dramatic.

"Recruitment is quite a cut-throat industry and stress was never raised as people saw it as a sign of weakness," said Sengul, who has now found work with a different firm. "There was a tendency to pile unrealistic demands on to us that exceeded the resources we had. I started taking time off to get on top of it, but eventually I had to leave the company.

"The company I work for now has a totally different attitude and proactively helps us cope with stress. It has made a massive difference."

Even celebrities are not exempt from stress. The normally bubbly TV presenter Gail Porter admitted recently that she was driven to take an overdose by stress. The 34-year-old’s marriage break-up with pop star Dan Hipgrave coupled with postnatal depression saw her being admitted to hospital after a suicide attempt.

Neil Shah, from the Stress Management Society, explained that the feeling of stress is a hangover from our evolutionary past.

"Stress is brought about by chemicals produced by the body which give us an extra boost we needed to either fight or run away," he said. "Now when we get stressed in offices, those same chemicals are produced but because we are not burning them up they don’t go away.

"Instead they just build up and they eventually reach the point where we explode over something small like a spilt bit of coffee or someone cutting us up in our cars."

Brief outbursts of anger or physical activity are often enough to help our bodies regulate levels of stress.

Shah added: "It is a very primal instinct that was originally there to serve us. Even now it can give us that little edge to push us further. But sometimes it reaches a point where we begin to buckle and break rather like a bridge with a growing weight in the middle.

"When that happens it can lead to depression and a list of other negative health implications."

The Scottish Trade Union Congress claims more than two million work days a year are lost because of stress, with 49% of those taking time off blaming pressure at work for their illnesses.

Stress-related absences are estimated to cost UK employers more than £5bn a year.

Some companies are now turning to stress management techniques to help their employees deal with the pressures of their work. Many are realising the benefits to encouraging workers to take exercise during the day and eat healthily to reduce stress levels.

Others are also turning to singing workshops and rhythm therapy such as African drumming as a way of helping people relieve stress.

Ian Tasker, assistant health and safety secretary of the STUC, believes it is wrong to tell people that illness brought on by stress is all in their minds.

He said: "It does lead to a number of conditions that are physically debilitating including a higher risk of heart attack and stroke.

"A substantial number of people lose their jobs due to stress as it can be difficult to rehabilitate them as few employers are willing to take them on again."

The HSE is now cracking down on companies to ensure they help reduce the problem of work-related stress under employment law.

A spokesman said: "There is a tendency for people to get mixed up about pressure and stress. Pressure in the workplace can be quite a positive thing and make people more productive.

"Stress is where the pressure experienced by individuals reaches a point that they can no longer cope with it. It has become a serious problem for workplaces and the law requires organisations take action."

But experts claim dealing with pressure in the workplace alone will not help people keep their stress under control. They say anxiety can also develop in social situations, at home and through finances.

And O’Donnell believes people will never be able to cope with stress until they realise the answer does not lie with a trip to the doctors.

He said: "Employers need to realise that people who enjoy their job and feel valued are more likely to work more productively and take less time off.

"But when people feel under pressure they need to do something about it themselves and not go straight to the doctors and get a sick note."


1 Avoid nicotine, alcohol and caffeine. People often smoke or drink to help alleviate stress, but because they are all stimulants they merely add to the problem.

2 Exercise. Pressure releases adrenaline in the body, which can cause muscles to tense. Physical activity cuts adrenaline and produces hormones to improve your mood.

3 Deep breaths. A series of deep breaths can be done anywhere and at anytime. They can have a profound calming effect.

4 Get enough sleep. Sleep is essential for the body to function properly and poor sleep can leave you short-tempered.

5 Make time to relax Find a hobby to take your mind off the trials of the day.

6 If you fall ill, take some rest. Don’t just carry on regardless. Working will tire the body and prolong the illness.

7 Talk about the problem. Talking through a problem can ease anxiety about it.

8 Learn to accept what you can’t change. If you cannot do anything about it, there is little point getting in a state over it.

9 Listen to your body. When you are tired, hungry or thirsty, do something about it. Eating healthier food and drinking water can help make a difference.

10 Learn to say ‘no’. Simple but effective. Sometimes it is the best response when work is mounting up. When said appropriately, it can be said without guilt.

This article: 


by Gwen Cheeseman
04 Feb 2005

Feature Article
If you feel stressed, the worst thing you can do is ignore it. Most people suffer from various forms of stress in their lives, and the workplace is generally a prime cause. Gwen Cheeseman talks to stress expert Vanessa Bolton.

Every day of our working lives we are exposed to stress. Whether it is a delay travelling into work or a colleague who is putting us under pressure - stressful situations present themselves. It is up to us to learn how to deal with it effectively and ensure that it causes as little damage as possible to our mental and physical health.

The causes of stress can include time-related, financial, structural or physical problems. When you perceive a threat - either physical or mental - it can cause a 'fight or flight' reaction. This means your body goes into shock and releases adrenalin and other hormones to heighten the speed of your reactions. Quite often, sweating increases to cool the muscles and your breathing becomes shallow while the heart pumps faster and harder to get more oxygen flow to the muscles and brain in order to deal with the perceived threat. Stress is also very individual, and what stresses one person does not necessarily stress another.

Generally, when we become stressed, it is due to circumstances beyond our control. What we can control is our response to that situation. Endocrinologist Hans Selye was one of the first to conduct research into stress and its effects. In 1956 he stated that: 'Stress is not necessarily something bad - it all depends on how you take it. The stress of exhilarating, creative, successful work is beneficial, while that of failure, humiliation or infection is detrimental.'

Selye believed that the biochemical effects of stress would be experienced, irrespective of whether the situation was positive or negative. However, thanks to long-term research, ideas have now moved on. Stress is now viewed as definitively bad for our health, causing a range of harmful biochemical and long-term effects. Often people mention that they thrive on stress, and find it easier to complete tasks under pressure. Even if they perceive this to be true, they are probably doing themselves more harm than good. Stress can reside in the body long after it has been felt, so it is important that we try and diffuse our reactions as quickly as possible.

De-stressing at work
Desk yoga is an effective way to calm and centre your body and mind. It is also a great way of de-stressing at work. Yoga is an ancient practice which is believed to have been followed for 5,000 years. Throughout the years, yoga has been scientifically tested and found to be extremely beneficial.

Vanessa Bolton, consultant for the Stress Management Society says: 'One of the first things to correct when you're feeling stressed, or even if you have been sitting at your desk for a long time, is your posture. Most people slouch slightly, which means their diaphragm is restricted. Sitting up straight, opening out and relaxing your shoulders is one of the most simple ways to increase your oxygen supply and improve your breathing. This will immediately reduce stress in the body by giving your brain more oxygen to deal with the situation.' Simply lifting up your diaphragm a couple of millimetres will allow up to 30% more oxygen into your system. This stimulates the brain, cleans the blood, and pumps energy around you. It also boosts confidence and promotes a feeling of
well-being. And it signals to your colleagues that you are strong.

Another breathing method Vanessa recommends which can help relieve stress is alternate nostril breathing. This is a simple but effective exercise which you can easily do at your desk. Firstly, use your right thumb to block your right nostril, inhale through your left nostril to the count of four. Gently pinch the left nostril with your right ring finger to a brisk count of 16. Unblock your right nostril and exhale through it for eight counts. Repeat this process in reverse and this completes one set. Do this again for four further sets. This exercise balances your serotonin, the chemical that regulates happiness in your brain. Inhaling for four then holding means that the air is pushed down to the bottom of your lungs. Exhaling for double the time you inhale increases the release of toxins from the lungs. You should feel more relaxed after this exercise, particularly in the shoulder and chest area.

To relieve stress and tension in the neck and to invigorate your mind, try this neck exercise. In rapid but gentle movements, leading with your chin, look twice to the left, and then twice to the right. Next, tilt your head to the left twice, then twice to the right, and finish by looking and moving your head up twice, but don't fold your neck back. The benefit of this exercise is to relieve muscle knots in the neck. This unlocks any cervical spine tension and helps to refresh the mind.

Another exercise to energise and relax the body is to stretch. Place your palms together in front of you and interlock your fingers. Next, keeping your hands interlocked, push your arms out straight ahead of you with your palms facing outwards. Stretch your arms, hands and fingers, and repeat several times until you begin to feel a surge of energy. You can also do the same exercise but pushing your arms up vertically above your head.

Difficult meetings?
Meetings can be a source of stress, especially if you experience a clash of opinions. A good technique is to alter your focus. This allows your mind to reset and deal with the situation you are presented with. If you find yourself at loggerheads with a colleague, the first thing you should do is disengage from them. This can be done by looking out of the window, or to the other side of the room. Just take a moment to break eye contact. This helps you refocus and break out of the confrontational situation, giving you a change of perspective.

Another technique to diffuse stress in a meeting situation is to mirror the body language of the person you are speaking to. For example, if they are leaning forward towards you - do the same thing, or if they have their hands in a particular position, copy that too. On a subconscious level, this makes your colleague feel you are reassuring and bonding with them and that you are listening and paying attention. They should then engage with you in a more positive manner.

'If none of these techniques seem to help and you are still feeling wound up and angry after a confrontation or meeting, remember that stress is often caused by our reactions to other people,' advises Vanessa. 'Often you feel this negativity clinging to you - it does. Think to yourself that you don't have to wear other people's issues, and physically wipe them off. With the palm of your hand, fairly vigorously wipe down your arms, torso, legs and your head. Visualise yourself brushing off the negative energy, you don't need to carry this. As you wipe, think of yourself removing the cause of the stress. It will improve your circulation and mood.'

When studying for exams, which can be very stressful, especially the closer you get to exam day, there are exercises you can do which will promote positivity and help energise you. A good tip is to complete the following exercise when you wake up in the morning. If you are mentally and physically tired from working and studying and need a boost, raise your arms at the sides, bent at elbows and shake your whole body. Shaking yourself up and down will release energy flow and give you the kickstart you need for the day ahead. Remember to smile as you do it. Smiling releases endorphins that boost the immune system and stimulates the brain.

On exam day itself, remember that thoughts carry weight. If you say to yourself: 'I hope I don't fail' your mind will focus on the action part of your thought - which in this case is failing. Better to think positively - saying: 'I know I can pass'. This sends your mind a more positive message. You can also visualise yourself coming out of the exam feeling like you've done well. Remember that if you look at a situation positively, you are more likely to succeed. 'Imagination is highly effective,' Vanessa points out: 'The brain identifies no difference between what is imagined and what is actual. You can fortify yourself and get your body and mind working very positively just by becoming aware of this.'

A final way to protect yourself from the everyday stresses of work and life is to imagine having a 'rubber aura', or a bell of glass or light. When you are exposed to negativity, for example if you are being bullied at work or have to deal with a jealous colleague, imagine you have a rubber aura. Rubber is porous and allows the good to come through, but negativity bounces off. You want their negativity to bounce off you. The best way to visualise this, says Vanessa, is to: 'Tell yourself that you refuse to deal with problems of their own making. If they are sapping your energy, think to yourself, I will give you what I can, but I keep my essential energy for me'. That way you can ignore any stress and negativity being projected towards you and preserve a positive and healthy attitude. Visit the Stress Management Society website at www.stress.org.uk for more information on desk yoga.

for full article click here

Many recruiters feel close to breaking point

posted 11:27am 05/10/04
Jo Faragher

Neil Shah used to be a hotshot recruiter. So much so that in the late 1990s, feeling he wasn’t fulfilling his true potential in his current position, he set up on his own, hiring IT contractors at the high point of the internet boom.

In 2001, the IT recruitment market began to feel the pinch, and unfortunately so did Shah. “On the one hand we were winning awards but on the other it was like weeds were growing and we didn’t have enough resources to pick them up,” he remembers. “I was putting myself under pressure to keep up a lifestyle, as well as profits.”

Shah eventually reached such a low that he snapped. He put the business into liquidation and embarked on a voyage of self discovery by climbing Mount Everest. It was up there that he realised the part of his job that he’d loved the most was not the commission or winning new deals but helping his staff develop. He now runs his own training and development company and holds workshops to help people deal with stress.

There are hundreds of recruiters out there who have been in the same position as Shah at some point in their career. And with business picking up across most sectors, companies are responding by upping their targets, so stress levels are set to soar. Thankfully though, with sensitive management, realistic goals and flexible working practices, recruiters can avoid getting frayed around the edges.

‘We were winning awards but it was like weeds were growing and we didn’t have enough resources to pick them up. I was putting myself under pressure to keep up a lifestyle, as well as profits’
neil shah, praesto training and development

Of course, recruitment isn’t the only profession where stress levels can get out of hand. A recent survey by high street agency Pertemps found that more than half of British workers suffer from ‘work fatigue’, where long hours and pressure to meet goals means they’re often too tired to do anything when they leave the office.

The government has also recognised stress as a national problem. At the end of this year, the Health and Safety Executive will publish a set of six ‘stress management standards’: a benchmark against which employers can measure themselves to ensure they’re providing a happy, healthy environment for their staff. It’s also likely to be used as a reference point for compensation claims brought against employers that don’t (see box opposite).

Hanging by a thread
Phil Sheridan, UK regional manager of financial recruitment firm Robert Half International, argues that an upturn in the economy brings with it a different type of stress than a downturn, when consultants are just trying to place enough people to hit their commission threshold.

“Consultants who entered recruitment in the past three years are in for a shock,” he says. “Those who were there before the downturn know what’s expected of them, so for many recruiters it could be a more stressful environment.”

The kind of people who thrive in this environment tend to be highly self-motivated, but they can also be the ones who are most at risk from stress. Steve Huxham, chairman of the Recruitment Society, has seen this happen to consultants many times. “There’s only a small step between being driven and self-motivated and suffering from stress. Unfortunately the stars that shine the brightest also fall the fastest,” he says.

‘There’s only a small step between being driven and self-motivated and suffering from stress. Unfortunately the stars that shine the brightest also fall the fastest’
steve huxham, the recruitment society

Thankfully the days when certain agencies used to impose an ‘eight-till-eight’ working day are over, but the peer pressure to put the hours in still exists. “There’s a mentality in recruitment that the more hours you do, the more effective you are,” says Shah. “But some of the most effective salespeople don’t spend all day at their desks.”

And the pressure is not just confined to the office either. ‘Teambuilding’ evenings down the pub are all part of the sales-driven culture. But far from being relaxing, this can actually make stress levels worse, according to Kevin Friery, director of counselling at workplace consultancy Right Corecare. “Stressed people often tend towards substance misuse: they see drink or drugs as a way of coping,” he says. “Either that or they’ll take short-term time off work, a couple of days here and there. But they’re still stressed when they come back.”

Pressure point
So how can recruiters avoid building up stress? Paul Roberts, strategic director of occupational health firm IHC, believes there are two main causes of stress that tend to affect workers: recognition and control. Staff need to be told when they’ve done a good job, and their employer needs to give them the correct tools to equip them to do that job, otherwise they lose control and stress sets in.

However, it’s difficult to maintain control in an industry as unpredictable as recruitment. Candidates, especially in this market, can turn around and say they’re not going to take a job and suddenly your targets seem unattainable. Sheridan at Robert Half suggests companies create a ‘safe-to-fail’ culture where consultants aren’t made to feel inadequate if they don’t reach expectations.

Offering flexible working options can also help manage stress levels. Many recruiters need to interview candidates after normal working hours, so why not allow them to take two hours at lunchtime to go to the gym? Or enable them to work from home by allowing them access to the database over a private network connection. “If you get rid of your peripheral stuff you can do 80% of your business in 20% of the time,” says Amanda Fone, founder of marketing agency F1 Recruitment, where all consultants dictate how, when and where they work (see case study below).

Some firms have introduced formal ways of measuring and managing stress levels. IHC performs ‘stress tests’ where employees are asked to respond to a survey about working practices. Organisations can then use the results to see the main causes of stress. Another option is to offer an employee advice line. For around £20 per head per year, firms can set up a free and confidential telephone service for staff where they can discuss anything from family problems to legal issues.

Simply recognising the potential dangers of stress is a good start. According to Friery of Right Corecare, if stress becomes a boardroom issue and someone at director level is responsible for dealing with stress, there tends to be a more relaxed working environment and less absenteeism.

Finally, there’s a strong business case for putting measures in place to help staff deal with stress. Healthier workers are more productive, meaning better sales and lower rates of staff turnover. “It’s not soppy or soft,” insists Friery. “The companies who look after their staff are some of the most profitable in the world.” As good a reason as any to stamp out stress before your consultants finally snap.

Top tips on how to deal with stress at work
Stress is not just an emotional reaction. It also manifests itself physically, explains Neil Shah of Praesto Training and Development. Symptoms can include dehydration, tightness of the muscles and, in extreme cases, stress can lead to clinical depression. Below are a few hints to help you deal with stress:

•Avoid using nicotine, alcohol or caffeine to alleviate stress
•Exercise regularly. This can help work off stress because it produces ‘good mood’ substances in the brain
•Make sure you get enough sleep to recharge your batteries
•If you do become sick, don’t try and carry on as if you are not
•Avoid interpersonal conflicts: don’t disagree with someone just for the sake of it
•Learn to accept what you cannot change
•Manage your time better: prioritise tasks and delegate if necessary
•Learn to say no: this will prevent too much pressure building up in the future

Source: The Stress Management Society                     

September 30, 2004

Colours: Knowing what colours suit you is the best way to make an impact through your appearance. If a colour co-ordination session with an image consultant seems a little extravagant, just be aware that the colours you choose to wear can bring out the best or the worst in your appearance. A sober grey suit with a carefully chosen coloured tie or blouse could be a winning combination for interviews.

Clothing: Getting your appearance right is all about balance. You don’t want to blend in with the wall, but you need to judge the effect of what you’re wearing on the people you’re meeting. Piercings or flowery tights, for example, are likely to offend some people so will not be appropriate in some situations, but will be in others.

Attitude: Be assertive in a new situation — people respond best to this sort of attitude. People tend to fall into three different behaviour categories: assertive, aggressive and passive. Being aggressive and intimidating will alienate you from the people you are trying to impress. Passivity won’t work either — you will get pushed around and taken advantage of.

Body language: Most people know that sitting with folded arms and crossed legs isn’t the most welcoming of postures, but there are more subtle things to be aware of. Showing your palms is one of the most positive, open gestures you can make, so avoid putting your hands behind your back. Who knows what you might be hiding?

Speech: Other people will immediately warm to you if they think that you are speaking their language. If they use tactile words such as “feel” and “touch” and you use visual phrases with words such as “look” and “see”, you aren’t communicating on the same level. Listen to what they say and try to match some of the words they use. They’ll like you without even knowing why.

Awareness: “Be aware of other people’s gut reactions,” says Neil Shah, the managing director of Praesto Training and Development (www.praesto.uk.com). “Understanding who you are — knowing your colours, awareness of your body language — will equip you to adapt to different situations and make the biggest impact in each one.”

Issue 8, August 2004

Small Business Update is the monthly magazine for people running their own business. Articles vary in length and cover 'hot topics', issues of importance, and current affairs.

Why I wish I'd followed discipline procedures to the letter

When Neil Shah dismissed a staff member for gross misconduct he thought that was the end of it. Then a letter arrived claiming the employee had been unfairly dismissed. The case went to an employment tribunal where Shah's former company, Pan Global Solutions, was found to have failed to follow correct procedures. Shah has since opened a new personal and professional training company called Praesto Training and Development. Here, he explains why closely following discipline and grievance procedures is vital and tells how his company is preparing for October 1.

"I set up Praesto Training and Development in November 2003, following the closure of Pan Global Solutions, a company I had founded.

When I started Pan Global I was 23 and had no idea about running a business. I got an employment law expert to draw up policies for everything I had to adhere to, but no one had time to read them. It was just more paper on the shelves collecting dust. If ever an issue arose with any of our employees, a manager would just take them into an office and have a word in their ear.

One day a member of staff said they were going to a client meeting, but by chance another member of the team rang the client and discovered no meeting had been set up. When I asked the employee what was going on it became clear he wasn't working in the best interests of the company, so we decided to let him go. Ten days later I received a letter from a lawyer saying the former employee was making a claim for unfair dismissal. The employment tribunal found in his favour because we hadn't adhered to the legal provision that he was allowed to have representation at the disciplinary meeting.

It was one of the factors that led to the demise of the business, but in the end it was a very positive thing for me. It gave me the opportunity to start again and, this time, to do things properly from the beginning. When I started Praesto I put procedures in place before I even took on one employee. I feel much better equipped for dealing with problems and it means we can now address issues before they go too far.

I now make sure details of our discipline and grievance procedures and policy are included in new employees' induction packs. However, because I'm aware that new employees have a lot to take in, we also have a simple flowchart on the office wall that shows each stage of our discipline or grievance procedure. I also make sure that all of our managers are aware of how an issue should be dealt with.

It's so important to be really careful when it comes to the law. It's no defence to put your hands up and say that you didn't know the law had changed - it is your job to keep up with it. I would advise all owner managers who are too busy to keep up with employment law to outsource it to a third party or, if they can afford it, employ an HR specialist.

I'm aware that the law is changing again in October, with the new three-step discipline and grievance procedures that are coming in. I will be getting a third-party employment law specialist to check over our processes to ensure they are correct.

The thing all business owners need to remember is that being insufficiently prepared is the worst thing. It's no good putting a discipline and grievance procedure policy in place once an issue has already arisen - by then it's too late. If you don't know what the law is, make it your job to find out. Telling an employment tribunal that you weren't aware of the law is not a good enough excuse."

Neil Shah was speaking to Vicki Taylor. To find out more about Praesto Training and Development call 0870 199 3260, email info@praesto.uk.com or visit www.praesto.uk.com.

Shah also founded the Stress Management Society: visit www.stress.org.uk for more information.

11:51 - 14 August 2004

Headteachers, firefighters, social workers and managers are to be trained in recognising stress in staff, after Lincolnshire's biggest employer spent almost £9m on sick leave.

Lessons on how to spot the early warnings of anxiety, tension and depression are to be given at Lincolnshire County Council to help reduce its sickness bill.

From next month all 500 line managers are to be sent to seminars on how to manage employee absence.

Headteachers from the county's 382 schools will also be invited to take part.

Head of strategic human resources Martin Rayson said: "Stress is difficult to monitor and for managers and even staff themselves to recognise sometimes.

"It can manifest as a cold, a recurring infection or other problems, which don't show up on absence reports as stress.

"These seminars will give managers fresh pointers on how to spot changes of behaviour in staff and other indicators which could mean they're under stress.

"Managers need to spot the signs and be able to talk to staff to identify issues before they lead to time off sick.

"Obviously, if staff are overworked then it's meaningless just recognising that without taking practical steps to deal with it.

"That's why directorates like social services are doing a lot of work on their recruitment levels, within budget constraints."

The council employs 15,000 people, 9,200 of whom work in schools.

An average 9.4 days per employee was lost to sickness in the 12 months between April 2003 and 2004 - which works out at around 141,000 days.

That's lower than the public sector average of 10.7 days but more than the average 7.8 days recorded at the country's private companies.

The council's audited accounts, which have recently been open for public inspection, show that the authority spent £8.8m on occupational and statutory sick pay in the 2003-04 financial year.

Of that £5m relates to schools.

Verna Braithwaite, a counsellor at Lincoln Relate, which offers counselling to public sector staff, welcomed the news.

"People under stress can lose interest in work or not get along with colleagues or they can go the other way and overwork," she said.

During the seminars council managers will also be given practical instruction on how to prevent work-related injuries and training on how to interview staff after a period of sick leave.

Last month the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development reported that public sector workers each took nearly 11 days off sick on average last year, costing taxpayers £4 billion.

The same survey found that stress was likely to be a big contributory factor.

Neil Shah, chief executive of the Stress Management Society, said: "This country loses an estimated 105 million working days and £3.7 billion in lost productivity to stress each year.

"Recognising stress is only half the battle. Employers need to offer practical steps to tackle it."

View Harrow College's Famous Alumni Page

12 May 2004

Tackling pressure before it takes hold will allow you to beat the burnout

CONTRIBUTOR: Neil Shah, Praesto Training

The recent tale of a City trader who lost her bank almost £4m when she went home early one day because of stress shows just how damaging workplace worries can be. And the sales-driven recruitment industry is one sector where stress is rife.

According to the Health & Safety Executive, there is a clear link between stress and ill-health. The HSE’s research recently discovered that more than 105m days are lost to
stress each year, costing UK employers £1.24bn.

Work-related stress is a serious economic problem. And, as the HSE points out, the law also requires employers to take action on the matter.

Many people thrive under pressure. But problems start when those pressures exceed a person’s ability to cope. First of all, we have to ask ourselves what causes stress? It’s impossible to specify the external conditions that cause stress as everyone’s interpretation of a stressful situation is different.

That said, some situations are more stressful than others, such as perhaps going to the dentist, having surgery, moving job, school or house, getting married or divorced, or the pressure of meeting targets and deadlines. Furthermore, situations arise on a day-to-day basis that make physical, mental and emotional demands on us.

Stress is the driving force that keeps us on our toes and pushes us to be the best we can. However, that is only valid up to a certain point. Too much stress can drive us into physical, mental and emotional exhaustion.

Having too little stress can also be a problem. If we are not stretched or committed, we can become bored, sluggish and lethargic. Therefore it is imperative to strike a balance.

How does stress make us feel? When a stressful situation is interpreted as dangerous or threatening, people experience feelings of tension, apprehension and worry. These feelings may also be accompanied by behavioural and physiological changes, such as trembling, palpitations, dizziness, tremors and so on.

Internal stress-causing factors combine with these external signs. Many kinds of internal conflicts can cause stress; the most common is a feeling of wanting to do something but feeling you shouldn’t, or the feeling you should be doing something when you don’t really want to.

Stress and anxiety both require energy, and once this energy is used up, the person becomes depressed; there is no energy left to feed the anxieties, so they are never resolved. To avoid this, we must take stock of all aspects of our life and situations. If treated early, the prospects are good. If left, there is a risk that burnout may become a permanent state of affairs.

A useful strategy for dealing with a sense of being overwhelmed by all the things that need attention is prioritising and diarising.

Make a list of all the things you need to do, list them in order of genuine importance, noting what you need to do personally and what can be delegated to others, as well as what needs to be done immediately and in the next week or month.

Viewed this way, your initially overwhelming and unmanageable list – the main source of stress – can become a more realistic and manageable set of tasks. allowing you to sleep a good deal easier at night.

Tuesday 6 April 2004

Edited by JAMES ELLIS travel@ukmetro.co.uk


There aren’t many people who, when presented with a set of bongo drums, can resist the temptation to tap out a few beats. It’s a sound that in an
instant can make you feel as though you’re by a campfire under African skies.  It’s easy to see, therefore,why an African drumming circle can be very addictive, even if it’s in North London.

Within five minutes of entering Somesh De Swardt’s Sunday morning drum session, the powerful sound of 15 people spontaneously jamming together
on large bongo drums has already taken me to a land much further away than the Islington Arts Factory.

According to De Swardt you don’t necessarily have to have natural rhythm to enjoy it. ‘Anyone with a heartbeat can learn drumming,’ he says, ‘all it
takes is ten minutes to get into it.’ And he is right. Ten minutes on, and the loud uplifting beats already have me hooked.

Thirty-year-old De Swardt came to the UK six years ago after being a member of a drum circle in his native South Africa.  ‘There didn’t seem to be as many opportunities to learn African drumming here as there were in Johannesburg,’ he says, ‘so I set up a monthly drum circle.’

The demand was so great that, by the time he finished an IT contract job two-and-a-half years ago, De Swardt was able to ditch his computing career and teach drumming full-time.

With weekly workshops in Islington, Bushey, Hertfordshire, and Godalming, Surrey, as well as corporate work and school classes, it seems the Brits are catching on.


While creating the music is fun in itself, drumming also has some fantastic health benefits. A study carried out in the US found that a two-hour session of drumming every week for six weeks improved the participants’
mood by 50 per cent.  ‘Even a half-hour drumming session can make you relaxed,’ says De Swardt, ‘It’s physical exercise, you improve your breathing and it can help your co-ordination.’

De Swardt is also keen to emphasise that drumming circles are a fantastic way of building communities. And, whether it’s with your colleagues or just
other young professionals wanting to do something different (as was the case in Islington), there is certainly something special about sitting in a circle and creating a set of uplifting rhythms with the other people in the group.

Grab anything

After teaching us some new beats from West Africa, we are each given a percussion instrument – drums, maracas, shakers, bongos. De Swardt then allocates each of us a different beat – and words to remember it with – to tap out.  My beat is: ‘I. Love. Chocolate. Cake.’ It’s not difficult for a chocoholic to remember (how did he know?).

Then, with all the confidence and directorial prowess of an orchestral conductor, De Swardt introduces each of our beats one or two at a time, to build up to a booming symphony of sound.  It is a fantastic experience and – despite the fact that the palms of my hands are throbbing after
two hours of tapping out beats – nothing is going to stop me from making a return visit to this little corner of Africa in the middle of Islington.

■ For full article please click on Metro Link above


Desk yoga beats stress for free!

Sixty business people packed into a local hotel for the launch of a free stress management workshop for small to medium sized businesses.

And 90 minutes later, they left feeling relaxed and armed with coping techniques they can use every day in the office, such as drumming, open-plan-office yoga, arm massage, a breathing technique that induces feelings of happiness, and a 10-minute relaxation method that gives the equivalent of three hours’ sleep.

Such techniques are part of the 'STILL Alert stress management' workshop from Praesto Training and Development, based in Harrow and a specialist in innovative ‘soft skills’ training. All can be practised discreetly at a desk, even in an open plan environment, meaning they can lower stress levels without raising colleagues’ eyebrows!

The full one-day workshops, start on 13 March at the University of Westminster in Harrow. They are completely free to those taking part, as long as they are either self-employed or working for a company employing up to 250 people, and they live or work in West London (Ealing, Harrow, Hillingdon, Hounslow, Brent, and Hammersmith and Fulham). 

The Mayor of Harrow, Cllr Mano Dhamarajah, enjoyed a neck massage at the launch. He says: “Being Mayor is a full-time and busy job, so I’m looking forward to using what I’ve learned in my remaining days in office. I feel very calm after 90 minutes of this.”

Lousie Marsden, from Ealing Physiotherapy, Sports Medicine and Back Centre found the session so effective that she is going to book her whole team onto the workshop. She says: “I didn’t think I could be that relaxed and stress-free in a room full of strangers, so that was a real eye opener. This is a very worthwhile workshop and I’d encourage anyone who qualifies to find out more before funding runs out!”

Backing for the project comes from the Thames Valley University through its Heathrow Supply Chain project, which is helping SMEs without large training budgets to upskill in time for the completion of Heathrow's Terminal 5 in 2008. The whole project is funded by the European Social Fund. 

Andrew Ward, Director of Corporate Development at Thames Valley University, speaking at the launch said: “If you are self employed or involved in a smaller company, it can be a stressful occupation. And funding for business support programmes is particularly hard to come by in this area of London. So we’re delighted that we can offer this training for free. It’s innovative and we’re pleased to be involved.”

For more info on the workshops and course dates, call 0870 199 3260

Please click on the above picture to access our 'STILL Alert' photo album

Photographs courtesy of Dermot Carlin - www.dermotcarlin.co.uk


Drumming sessions at work could help employees defend themselves from stress and lower staff turnover, according to a new study from America.

When the participants - staff at a Pennsylvania nursing home - took part in six weekly drumming sessions, it improved their mood by almost 50%.

Dr Barry Bittman, the author of the report, said there was a decrease in feelings of fatigue and depression.

The positive effects of the drumming continued for a year, he added.

Dr Bittman said it resulted in 49 fewer employees resigning from the nursing home - the Westbury United Methodist Retirement Community - over the 12 months that followed.

Banging on

He is now calling for drumming sessions to be introduced across all industries.

In the drumming sessions at the nursing home the participants performed a series of exercises, including beating the drum in the rhythm of their own names, copying those of someone else, representing their feelings by drumbeats, playing along to music, and discussing ongoing stresses with the group.

Immediately after the sessions were completed, the staff were said to show a 46% improvement in mood.

And six weeks after the sessions ended the same people showed a more than 62% improvement in mood, the report added, suggesting that the emotional boost can continue long after the music has ended.


Margaret Bailey, a colleague of Dr Bittman at the Mind-Body Wellness Centre, said the drumming "creates a connectiveness and energy within the group".

But while drumming may work wonders in the workplace, in the world of rock'n'roll it is more often than not the drummer who reaps any misfortune.

This is a fact not lost on spoof rock band movie Spinal Tap, in which the group's drummers keep inadvertently and inexplicably blowing up.

From the BBC News website 20/2/04

Guy Clapperton examines the pros and cons of sending your seasonal good wishes online

Monday December 22, 2003
The Guardian 

Neil Shah, managing director of the training and development company Praesto, has sent ecards and donated the money to Children's Aid Direct; he's done this not only for business associates but also for personal cards, including one to his mother. "I thought long and hard about that," he says.

A couple of years ago it wouldn't have been feasible because she didn't have an internet connection but that has changed. "I decided while I was away for a couple of months in Nepal climbing Everest that I'd do it," he explains casually. "I was living among people who wasted nothing - even yak dung is burned for warmth. It left me thinking about how wasteful we are in our society and what Christmas ought to be, an opportunity to focus on what we can do for other people." He is concerned about costs of course, but also about the environmental impact of the manufacturing and disposal of traditional Christmas cards. And if you're prepared to argue with someone who's just been up Everest, you're a bigger cynic than most.

By Kate Crockett, Evening Standard 15 April 2003

Neil Shah, 28, is the managing director of Harrow-based Pan Global Solutions, a niche market IT recruitment, solutions and training company, set up in 1998.

The company was born out of Shah's frustration with the recruitment company he was employed by at the time. "I was working for a firm that didn't see the opportunities available in the future and were very rigid in the way they did business," he says. "I felt there wasn't a future for a company that wasn't flexible enough to adopt market changes." So Shah left his job, thinking he could cash-in on those missed opportunities. Within three days he had launched Pan Global Solutions and, within a week, had generated enough new business to get things moving. His intuitiveness had paid off.

"I didn't put a great deal of thought into it and as a result there weren't many people out there willing to fund me," he says. As a result, Shah relied on his credit cards to pay the initial bills. "I was very confident in my own abilities, however," he adds. "At that time, the market was very busy, I had a good reputation and good relationships with a lot of people I was dealing with."

Shah, whose parents are of Indian origin, does not come from a business background but says his father has "very entrepreneurial skills". "When I started my business his support was fantastic because he's always had ideas of setting up his own business but has never actually taken the step," he explains.

Shah has big plans for Pan Global. It already employs 17 staff and has plans to employ 120 people around the globe, with a turnover of £50 million within 10 years. Shah says: "For me, owning my own business is about the buzz of being in control of your destiny: you decide what is going to happen next, as opposed to waiting for someone to award you recognition."