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The Toronto Sun CareerConnection


Doctor's orders: Stop stressing out

By Sharon Aschaiek

Traditionally, stress has been viewed as an unsavoury side effect of a work-obsessed culture, but a necessary evil to achieving success in today's competitive climate.

But more and more, we're hearing about how stress can have lasting negative effects on our health, about the losing battle to achieve work-life balance, and even how an overstressed workforce is beginning to adversely affect corporate North America.

Getting stressed out has gone from being a periodic experience in one's life, to becoming a way of life -- and that, according to Dr. David Posen, is a recipe for disaster.

"People are pretty stressed out these days, and I think far too many people don't appreciate the effect it's having on their health," Posen says. "People are so used to a high level of stress, they think it's normal, but it's not."

As a psychotherapist specializing in stress management and lifestyle counselling, Posen has witnessed more than his fair share of stress-addled clients who've given over their lives to work. In 1985, Posen gave up his medical practice to devote his time exclusively to helping people destress.

"I just saw a patient the other day who was entitled to four weeks of holidays, but takes just two to two and a half. He said 'They give you four, but if you take them all, they're not very happy.' In some cases there's a corporate culture that says, We don't take vacations. But when people take vacations, they come back re-energized."

Skipping holidays is just one symptom of what Posen sees as one of North America's biggest health epidemics, and has responded accordingly with a "doctors orders" book, The Little Book of Stress Relief (Key Porter Books).

The 207-page step-by-step guide -- Posen's third life-management type book -- features information and insights to help individuals understand the effects of too much stress, and instructional advice on how they can reclaim their lives.

Chapters are broken down to cover basic themes, such as sleep, caffeine, burnout, money and delegating, and 52 "prescriptions" are included with tips on tackling a specific problem.

Much of what the book covers is common sense advice that experts have been touting for years: eat healthful foods, work out, get enough sleep and avoid drugs and alcohol. Common sense that Posen says is far from common, which he illustrates through various studies.

For example, one U.S. study found that 100,000 car accidents a year are caused by sleepy drivers.

But as useful to the stressed out worker is the advice on how to prevent work from dominating their lives.

First of all, put work into perspective, he advises. Recognize that you have limitations and that there is only so much you can do.

"Past a certain point, you are spinning your wheels," says Posen, a corporate trainer who lectures across North America. "If you regularly work 11 hours a day, you are probably less efficient, tired, and not functioning all that well."

He goes on to discuss strategies for effective communication, avoiding procrastination, delegating and being organized. He also emphasizes leaving your work at the office by placing priority on a life outside of work.

But even Posen recognizes the limitations of self-empowerment in a culture where too many corporations operate too narrowly by the profit principle, and workaholics are seen as faithful employees.

"The corporate world is actually making people sick," he says. "Employers are putting terrible pressure on people, and people can only do so much. They are doing employees and society a real disservice because of the fact that most of people can't handle that much pressure as a way of life."

Indeed, stress can manifest in such health problems as tiredness, anxiety, forgetfulness, depression, cramps and achiness.

But as corporations continue to expect employees to work longer and harder hours, the problem shifts from an individual to a social and economic one.

As Posen reports in his book, Statistics Canada estimates that the of work time lost to stress is $12 billion per year, arising from absenteeism, worker's compensation claims, health insurance costs and lowered productivity.

"A lot of companies are realizing that there's a new generation of workers that doesn't want to work nutty hours and make work their life. Hopefully these individuals will get the corporate world to realize that if they want to stay in business, they can't keep treating people this way."

What Posen ultimately aims to do with The Little Book of Stress Relief is empower us to take a stand against a life of too much stress, achieve work-life balance, and improve the quality of our lives.

"People can have influence on the corporate culture by having the courage of their convictions and not agreeing to give up."

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