• Work related stress can ruin your life, not just your job
After three weeks of summer holidays with her family in Italy, Laura Hughes was preparing to return to her job of producing current-affairs documentaries. Flipping open her laptop, she heard her son Oscar, 6, remarking glumly to his father that “Mummy’s going back to work, so she’s going be really angry with us all again and we better stay out of her way”. It was a reminder that she wasn’t fooling anyone; managing a high-octane career was making her intolerably stressed.
“Oscar’s words hit me hard,” she says. “Although my work is demanding, I thought I’d shielded my family from the stress I was under. But he was spot-on. When I’m working hard, I take it out on my family by shouting or getting tearful, and really resenting the perfectly reasonable demands they place on me — they’re my children, after all.
“At a certain level, stress is exciting and motivating. But there’s another moment beyond that — and it’s hard to identify when it’s approaching — when I’m like a frightened bunny. I become paralysed with fear, waking at 4am feeling sick, which means I’m a nightmare by evening. It’s not just me paying the price: the kids do, my husband does and my employee does, too, because I know I’m less productive in that state.”
The psychological manifestations of stress that Laura describes — sleeplessness, nausea, fear — are familiar to many people. Work-related stress can be responsible for numerous physical conditions, including raised blood pressure, headaches, indigestion and increased heart rate, but the emotional toll is often the thing that is most difficult for women to handle. At its worst, acute stress can be responsible for severe depression and panic attacks, devastating for the individual, but also for society as a whole, because it is estimated that 13.8m working days are lost every year due to work-related emotional stress.
For some, the idea of work actually enhancing an individual’s physical and mental health might seem unrealistic. Too often work is simply a means to pay the rent and run a life. Work in the public sector, and your stress levels are likely to be very high; statistically, teachers and nurses are some of the people most susceptible to emotional stress.
“Everyone knows we work some of the longest hours in Europe, but for many employees there’s also the increasing pressure of meeting targets,” says Ian Draper, convenor of the UK National Work-Stress Network, a campaigning group set up to work towards eradicating stress in the workplace. “Performance targets put excessive pressure on employees, both in terms of actual workload and paperwork.”
It isn’t merely the hours women are working that is the problem: it’s the stress of bottling up the strain they are under, especially in male-dominated professional spheres. Having worked for two decades in the City before switching to a career in local government, Julianna Hart has been at the sharp end of different management styles. “Men and women react differently to stress: men tend to shout, and women to cry,” she says. “It’s annoying that it’s essentially acceptable for men to lose their temper within a business environment, and yet crying is viewed as an unacceptable weakness, particularly in the City.”
A loss of control, precipitating the “frightened bunny” feeling that Hughes experienced, is often cited a key stress trigger, particularly for women managing a demanding professional life alongside the demands of young children. “There are few things more stressful than coping with work and young children,” says Louise Stormer, who resigned from her position as a high-profile headhunter when the challenges of juggling work with the demands of her young family became insurmountable. “The pressure of very long, employee-imposed working days was eventually intolerable.
I lost a stone and aged about a decade because I was so exhausted and anxious about meeting my targets.”
This anxiety can have serious long-term consequences. In Stormer’s case, she developed depression. “I felt really ashamed about it at first and was in denial about how bad the strain had got. My husband identified it, as I’m naturally a fairly buoyant person. There is real stigma about depression. It’s not something that you can take with you into a thriving business environment. At its worst, the stress of work contaminated all areas of my life. It became impossible to compartmentalise it. Although I looked forward to seeing the kids in the evening, I found myself staying in the office late, postponing the moment of going home so that they would be in bed by the time I got there. I didn’t know how to unfold myself psychologically from work and relate to my children as a mum. Looking back, I realise I was clinging onto sanity by a very thin thread.”
When that thread snapped, and her doctor recommended she take sick leave due to depression, she made a stark choice, and resigned; she now works W part time for a financial consultancy instead. “Initially, it was financially precarious, but because that felt self-imposed, I knew I could cope with it. It helped me regain control of my life, personally and professionally.”
A lack of control, exacerbating emotional stress that can lead to depression, is partly the effect of the exponential increase in our dependence on technology. Working without e-mail and internet access is now pretty unthinkable, but these now seep into our traditional downtime. A lunch break — and even the weekend off — is something that some of us are in danger of losing.
“I think my BlackBerry is clawing away at my sanity,” says one high- profile fashion designer who prefers to remain anonymous. “My business is about creating a highly desirable world of effortless luxury and glamour. I’m good at projecting that image in public, but I’m plagued by profound emotional stress all the time. It’s got worse since I got a BlackBerry, because people expect me to answer questions relating to the running of the company within moments, day or night. It’s made me jumpy and much more prone to panic attacks. And yet I cannot give it up, because now that I’m dependent on it, being without it is, ironically, stressful.”
Minimising the emotional demands of a pressurised career is challenging, and part of it lies in making an effort to maintain clearer work/life boundaries.
“The stress reported by so many derives from lack of clarity with regard to our sense of our own identity: we end up unsatisfied with our performance as worker or lover or parent because we don’t know which we’re meant to be from one moment to the next and so find it impossible to wholeheartedly embrace any one role,” says the Jungian analyst Mark Saban. “The kind of detachment that would, until recently, have been given automatically by the clear boundaries between work and nonwork needs to be consciously rediscovered or re-established by the individual.”
Perhaps, though, stress is simply a part of the human condition. Laura Hughes was still smarting from her son Oscar’s comment when her boss’s wife stomped into the office. “She complained about how genuinely stressful buying a school uniform was.
I wanted to throw my keyboard at her, and felt she had no real clue about the kind of demands many working mothers are facing. But it did make me feel that, whatever situation we’re in, part of our genetic make-up to feel stressed out.”
One in seven couples in the UK now struggles to conceive and, for many women, prolonged stress and anxiety could be the root cause. Professor Sarah Berga of Emory University in America is a leading proponent of the link between chronic stress and compromised fertility. She has shown that stress often triggers a cascade of events that result in reduced levels of two hormones that are crucial for ovulation, and that women with hectic jobs on top of busy lives are most at risk. One of her studies, published two years ago, showed that women who didn’t ovulate had excessive levels of the stress hormone cortisol present in their brain fluid.
“Your brain is hard to fool,” says Berga. “If you are undereating, overworking and overexercising, then the hypothalamus — the part of the brain that controls the release of hormones — keeps a running tally of what you are doing.”
For many women, stress-related infertility can be reversed. Berga found that ovulation was restored in seven out of 10 women who underwent “talking therapies” such as cognitive behavioural therapy.
The unsightly signs that you are working too hard
For women who try to have it all — career, family, social life and exercise regime — something, inevitably, has to give, and often it is their health.
Emerging research into the effects of stress have linked it to conditions as diverse as heart disease, skin complaints and depression, with overloaded lives causing a surge in stress hormones that negatively affect the body and mind. Hair loss and acne are two big stress-related issues now affecting women, but if you’re suffering, there are ways to ease the strain.
The number of women suffering from stress-related hair loss has doubled in the past decade, according to the charity Hairline International. Dr Hugh Rushton of the University of Portsmouth’s school of pharmacy surveyed 800 women for a study published in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology and found that nearly one-third of them had experienced considerable thinning or loss of hair.
For many sufferers, the problem is androgenic alopecia, which can be genetic, but is more likely caused by stress and hormonal imbalances.
“Stress causes a rise in adrenaline, which can be converted by the body into cholesterol and then dihydrotestosterone, a substance that causes hair loss in both men and women,” says the trichologist Philip Kingsley. “Stress can also affect the body’s ability to absorb nutrients, which makes matters worse.”
Getting enough sleep through catnaps and trying to incorporate stress-busting activities such as yoga can help, but diet is also important. “It is thought supplements of B vitamins can help to counteract the effects of stress,” Kingsley says. “Because hair is made of protein, it is also vital to eat low-fat protein foods like cheese, milk and dairy, preferably for breakfast, as hair follicles have their lowest energy supplies first thing in the morning.”
A drop in serum ferritin levels, caused by too little iron in the diet, can also slow the rate of hair growth. Iron-rich foods, including red meat, leafy green vegetables and fortified breakfast cereals, should be eaten on a regular basis.
According to the British Association of Dermatologists (BAD), more women than ever are now consulting their GP about acne well past their teenage years. Indeed, studies carried out at Leeds General Infirmary showed that 14% of UK women aged 26-44 suffer from facial acne, and that the average age for people being treated for the condition has risen from 20.5 in 1984 to 26.5 today.
One of the main triggers for adult acne is stress, which increases the production of male hormones. People with acne have sebaceous glands that are hypersensitive to testosterone. Using oil-free moisturisers and noncomodogenic pore-blocking cosmetics is helpful, but in persistent cases it is worthwhile seeking treatment.
Nina Goad of BAD says the first step should be to try over-the-counter products containing benzoyl peroxide. “If they don’t work, visit your doctor, who may refer you to a consultant dermatologist,” she says. “A combination of topical creams, antibiotics and hormonal therapies may be prescribed.” Some types of contraceptive pill, such as Dianette, are beneficial, she notes, while others make acne worse.
Roaccutane, a vitamin A derivative, is one of the most powerful treatments and effective in many cases, but it has some unpleasant side effects, and should not be taken by women who are likely to become pregnant while taking the drug, or within a month of stopping it.