Workplace stress is a myth, claims a recent report by the Institute of Directors, which says workers blame the office for everything that’s wrong in their lives.
But yesterday a new report suggested the opposite – and warned bosses could be sued if they dismiss complaints of stress as mere “whingeing”.
Whatever the truth, for most of us the issue is not whether stress exists but who suffers the most – those at the top or the bottom of the ladder?
Four people in a thriving London business, from the chairman to the office assistant, monitored their heart rate throughout a typical working day.
If the average healthy heart rate is 72 beats a minute – and anything over 100 can be damaging – what did their “stress diaries” tell us?
Expert Belinda Linden, cardiac nurse adviser for The British Heart Foundation, gave her verdict and rated their overall stress levels out of 10.
Example 1: The chairman
Rory Steer, 44, is the founder and chairman of the Freeplay Energy Group in Conduit Street , W1, which develops and sells self-sufficient energy gadgets, such as the wind-up radio. He is married and lives in St James’s.
His hour-by-hour diary: 6am:
Watched TV business news – nothing happening to affect us today. 65
8am: Business breakfast with potential distributor. Talks on sales percentages tricky, but we reach a compromise. 110
9.30am: Board meeting about to start, so check emails. Distracted by executives popping in and out, including the finance director asking if we should chase a late payer. Of course we should. 82
11.35am: During board meeting colleague advises that our “new generation radio” project “can’t move any quicker”. Very frustrated. 112
1pm: I’m starving. Surely someone should have arranged lunch. 80
1.30pm: Eating prawn sandwiches and fruit between calls. Need to return calls but can’t get hold of anyone. Irritated. 84 3pm:
Ask Debby for minutes of board report, thought she’d have typed them by now. 93
5.30pm: Dash to the airport through London traffic to catch flight to South Africa to attend the World Economics Forum in Durban. Being driven, so not too stressed. 90
7pm: Board flight, sort out board report and read FT. 68
The expert’s view: “Rory thrives on challenge and success, but his heart rate reflects the demanding moments of his day, including a tricky business breakfast and a meeting where he could not achieve what he wanted.
“Each was frustrating for Rory because he had little control over them, but a few simple relaxation methods could have helped to control his heart rate better and reduce his demands on Debby.
“He needs to find more balance, to make time for exercise and relaxation.”
Workplace stress rating: “He thrives on stress, but doesn’t handle it well when he feels out of control.” 7/10
Example 2: The chairman’s PA
Debby Coltman, 38, is Rory’s PA. She is single and lives in Hounslow, Middlesex.
Her hour-by-hour diary:
7am: Woke up to an extremely high reading. Must be because there’s a board meeting. 155
9.28am: At office, set up the boardroom. Urgently need photocopying from Carey, ask her to hurry up. 89
11.40am: In meeting Rory isn’t happy, he looks agitated and is talking very fast. 108
1.05pm: Rory is restless, waiting to eat. Carey is in charge of lunches, wish she’d get a move on. 85
1.30pm: Have to get out for a brisk walk. 102
2pm: Rory asks for the first draft of the board report to be ready before he leaves for the airport, so am typing frantically. 75
3.02pm: Rory asks for board report. I can type fast, but not that fast. 92
5pm: Last-minute rush to get Rory to the airport. Have to make sure his papers/tickets/ passport are sorted. Everyone clamouring to speak to him before he leaves. 93
6pm: Leave for evening at the theatre and dinner with a friend. 68
The expert’s view: “Debby’s challenge is Rory. She feels she keeps calm but her heart rate rises in response to demands from Rory.”
Workplace stress rating: “Debby is feeding off Rory’s anxieties and her heart rate is too high in the morning – where her boss’s is normal. At least she’s trying to switch off after work.” 8/10
Example 3: Operations director
Vivian Blick, 40, is married with two children and lives in Gloucestershire. He is taking a more laid-back approach to life since having a minor heart attack four months ago.
His hour-by-hour diary:
6.30am: Stayed overnight at hotel as we have an early board meeting. 70
6.35am: Irritated because hotel shower door is broken and the floor is all wet. 100
7.30am: Walk to the office, about a mile at brisk pace. 77
8am: Hot and bothered, shouldn’t have walked. 113
9.30am: Wondering how long board meeting will take as need to make calls. 70
11.30am: Rory wants new project to move quickly, but tests need to be completed to meet standards. 90
2pm: Tired, drink a can of Red Bull. 75
2.45pm: Discuss increasing distribution to meet targets. It’s a big challenge due to competitive market, but I am confident. 78
3.30pm: Excuse myself from one meeting to jump in a cab and rush to another. 85
7pm: Dinner at great Chinese restaurant. Enjoy delicious aromatic crispy duck with glass of red wine. 70
11.35pm: Go to bed, feeling relaxed. 65
The expert’s view: “Vivian is taking things easier since his heart attack. His heart rate increases on fewer occasions than his colleagues do. He dealt well with the pressure of the board meeting, but drinking Red Bull isn’t the ideal way to deal with feeling tired. He regrets walking to the office in the morning, but exercise is positive.”
Workplace stress verdict: “He’s doing well to avoid another heart attack by taking a calm approach to the job.” 6/10
Example 4: The office assistant
Carey Myers, 26, is single and shares a house in Golders Green.
Her hour-by-hour diary:
7am: Wake up to a high reading. 150
7.22am:. Need to get ready but my housemate is in the shower. 110
8.40am: Hate the Tube: it’s hot and busy and I am late. 106
9.25am: Debby asked for photocopying for the meeting. Oops! No paper in copier, no paper in cupboard. Should have done it yesterday. 103
11.15am: Liaise with PR agency about product photography. 75
12.59pm: Suddenly asked to organise sandwiches for the board meeting as they overran. Feel under pressure. 98
1.18pm: Go back for more money and buy myself a sandwich but have to eat while typing. 94
5.15pm: Have to wait for urgent call from Vivian. Where on earth is he? 97
6pm: At last, I am off. 101
8pm: Relax at last. Eat and watch TV. 60
The expert’s verdict: “Carey’s heart rate reflects that she is the most stressed of the team. This bears out evidence that the person who has least control appears to have a greater risk of coronary heart disease.”
Workplace stress rating: “Carey needs to make time for exercise and take breaks in the day. She could keep a supply of healthy food, such as fruit, for colleagues to snack on. If everyone else’s blood-sugar levels are maintained, they will be less irritable.”9/10