Feature

Ways of combating work-related stress

With 40 million working days lost through stress each year, isn't it time you gave your staff some TLC? Massage, meditation and music are some of the therapies on offer.

Roisin Woolnough

Working in e-business is exciting, rewarding... and stressful. Hardly surprising, then, that many New Economy companies are using the same inspiration they call upon in their ambitious business strategies to keep their staff happy, productive and motivated.

Some of them give Miha Pogacnik a call. Pogacnik is a concert violinist and composer. He is also a diplomat, business consultant and visionary who goes into companies and plays classical music to people. Through his music, Pogacnik aims to demonstrate fundamental cycles of renewal and change and help professionals achieve their visions.

"To be a successful entrepreneur one needs a vision of greatness for one's work," says the Slovenian. "If we dream extravagantly we will be inspired to forge a reality beyond the straitjacket of practicalities. There is a profound connection between art and enterprise which allows businesses to overcome the limitations of their existing visions."

Visionaries such as Pogacnik are used by an increasing number of employers to spur on staff. Research shows reflective activities can inspire staff and boost morale, increasing creativity and productivity levels.

David Madie, vice-president of emerging markets at e-business consultancy, Catenas, has heard Pogacnik play many times and says he is always deeply affected by the experience. "I met Miha years ago at a conference where he was playing. It was an EU conference on entrepreneurship. Everybody thought he was just another speaker and then he pulled out his violin and played. He has an amazing energy and gives people an instant experience. It changed the whole atmosphere and made everyone realise what entrepreneurship is."

Madie was so impressed by Pogacnik that he asked him to play at a conference his company was hosting. "We invited him for a meeting of global companies. We had people from China, the US and Africa and wanted something that would tie them together in a cross-cultural experience. What he does is excellent for that as it's a shared experience."

When Pogacnik plays, he asks his audience to participate in the music by listening to what it is saying and how it is relevant to them. Madie explains: "He played Bach sonatas and while he played, he explained how the music contains the archetype of an entrepreneur. He interrupts his playing, explains each piece and asks people to feel and understand that the music is telling a story, asking them to describe what they're hearing.

"You're listening for something that is full of energy, expresses doubts, developments and recovery. What he expresses is deep archetypes of human beings - that everyone is dealing with the same problems and issues. The value he gives to the company is the ability to understand fundamental concepts about change," says Madie.

Pogacnik works closely with Breakthrough Technologies, a UK consultancy that specialises in organisational change. Breakthrough claims to re-energise and refresh professionals suffering from stress through what the programme manager, Georgina Broke, calls well-being initiatives.

In March, it is opening a centre specifically for stressed-out individuals. Called Maheo, a Cheyenne Indian word for creative spirit, the centre has, among other facilities, a Chinese meditation garden, therapy rooms, yoga and reflexology sessions. It will run courses on issues such as well-being, corporate responsibility and creativity. "We want to encourage people to reflect," says Broke.

"People get so caught up in business and can become very stressed, yet they are much more able to adjust to change when they are not feeling negative. Sometimes, when life is better, you are more enthusiastic about taking on new challenges."

According to a recent study by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), one in five employees is extremely stressed at work. The HSE found that people who earn over £20,000 and work long, unsociable hours, were the most stressed respondents. Sound like your typical e-business operation? No wonder that dotcoms are so keen to introduce measures to reduce stress.

Having a stressed workforce can cost a company dear in terms of productivity, creativity and working days. Many reports show that people are working increasingly long hours, travelling frequently and don't have time to unwind. According to figures from Meridian Stress Management consultancy, 70% of all GP visits are stress related and an estimated 40 million working days are lost to illness each year.

This is why Broke says so many companies are now looking for ways to rejuvenate their workforce. When companies approach Breakthrough, Broke says they begin by finding out both what the employer wants and what the employee wants to improve about their working environment. "We do a survey of the people in the company, asking how they feel about things, what they would like to see and what's wrong. It is crucial to have a champion within an organisation to put it into place and find out what is most appropriate."

Broke says the most common request is for massages. "That's the biggest requirement." Not just ordinary massages either. Anything from sports injury massages to Shiatsu massages, foot massages or aromatherapy massages are popular.

Unlike the Eighties, when stressed-out executives used to release tension by going to the gym or playing squash, many of the activities practised now are more reflective, such as yoga or meditation. According to Dr Geoffrey Clements, chairman of the trustees at the Maharishi Foundation, an educational charity that teaches transcendental meditation, a growing number of companies and individuals are involved in its corporate development programme. "

We offer programmes for developing creativity and intelligence through transcendental meditation," he says. "It involves teaching people transcendental meditation and running seminars to help them use their creativity positively in the workforce. The meditation is a very simple technique, characterised by a very deep state of rest, twice as deep as normal sleep. But the mind becomes more alert at the same time. It benefits the mind in terms of creativity, intelligence and the ability to focus sharply.

"On a physical level, when you get this deep level of rest on a regular basis, it adds to the capacity of the body to throw off strain and stress. Typically, where people have taken up transcendental meditation, there is more productivity, less stress at work, people get on better and there is less conflict," says Clements.

Some churches in London's Square Mile have reported an increase in the number of business people dropping in looking for spiritual fulfilment. They may not even be seeking a religious experience, but want to fulfil a spiritual urge. People are also turning to more unconventional spiritual beliefs,

such as shamanism. On a simplistic level, shamanism is a system of knowledge and divination through belief, teachings, practices and ceremonies.

"There certainly is an increased level of interest in shamanism," claims Howard Charing, a partner at Eagle's Wing, a UK centre for shamanism. "A lot of people who work in offices are becoming increasingly divorced from the natural world. Seeing their life as part of some greater cycle fulfils spiritual desires and is a great way to reduce stress. Some people are using shamanic tools and principles, but are not actually calling it that."

Other professionals practice more aggressive ways to relax. The traditional sports played by corporates have been golf, football and squash, but now there is a trend towards martial arts, such as kickboxing. The one 'sport' that really has taken off in the e-business world is, of course, table football. "A lot of table football is played in our office," says Corin Jenkins, a director at consumer opinion portal dooyoo. "We challenge other offices too. We have a weekly competition and a trophy called the Punani Cup."

Open your mind: positive inspiration for the office

  • Poetry readings
  • Storytelling
  • Flamenco dancing lessons
  • Drumming workshops
  • Painting workshops
  • Drama classes
  • Voice training workshops
  • Walks in the park

    Escapism: contacts

  • The Maharishi Foundation 020 77492290
  • Breakthrough Technologies 01453 861 050
  • To find out more about Pogacnik, contact Breakthrough
  • Eagle's Wing 020 7435 8174

    Case study: Link

    Jim Nix, general manager of business development at cash machine network company Link, has been attending classes on Thai boxing and yoga, provided by his company.

    Some time ago, the CEO was concerned when one of the female staff had heard of women being attacked. She wanted to do something to protect herself and someone suggested a form of self-defence, formed on martial arts. The company set up a class of Thai boxing, a very ancient Thai martial art, after work in the boardroom. It got so popular that we couldn't get everyone in the same room at the same time, so we had to do it two nights a week. Some people have been really drawn into it and have taken it up outside of work as well. Then, about 12 months ago, we started a yoga class on Monday evenings. It's like any benefit - it's that little bit extra that's not in your pay packet.

    Case study: Neon

    Stephen Hawkins, director of education for EMEA, at e-business integration company New Era of Networks (NEON), takes his colleagues on caving and potholing trips.

    "I have always enjoyed taking people caving. A lot of people think it's dangerous, but they are very surprised to find it's not. It's been very popular at NEON and I take six or seven people usually. It gives people confidence when they do stuff they thought they would never do. And without making it sounding too much like a marketing pitch, it does build team spirit. It builds comradeship and gets rid of the groups that sometimes come up in companies," says Hawkins.

    "It's good to know the people you are working with, their strengths and weaknesses. If you don't get on with or know people and you're stuck with them for a week, it can be quite depressing."

    Case study: Quotient

    Lesley Clarke, communications manager and PA to the managing director at UK telecoms consultancy, Quotient, together with other members of staff has been learning Spanish. Participants enjoyed a series of two-hour training sessions during working hours, all arranged and paid for by the company.

    "It's something I've always wanted to do, but found it hard to fit in during the evenings. This is the first opportunity of all the places I've worked to do this. We have an outside consultant who comes in and talks about personal development and it started there. It's nice to know that I am fulfilling something I want to do on a personal level and that the company is helping me," says Clarke.

    "It has done a lot for my confidence and it's nice to know you're a person and not just the bottom line," she says. "You don't get to meet everyone in the company, but this gets people together."


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    This was first published in January 2001

     

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