Stress test: Are you fit for work?

By Matthew Wall
Business reporter, BBC News

image copyrightThinkstock
image captionStress, anxiety and depression were the main causes of absence from work in the UK in 2012

Stress can lead to burn-out, whether you're a chief executive or a shelf stacker.

Hector Sants, the former boss of the Financial Services Authority, had to bow out from his compliance role at Barclays Bank because of stress and exhaustion.

Nor is the world of sport immune. England batsman Jonathan Trott recently left the Ashes tour of Australia owing to a long-standing stress-related condition.

But these are just high-profile examples of a much wider problem.

Workers in the UK took an average 5.3 days off work in 2012, according to the 2013 CBI/Pfizer Fit for Purpose survey, with stress, anxiety and depression given as the main causes of absence.

Sick leave is costing the UK economy £14bn a year, the report suggests. So there is a strong financial incentive for businesses to keep their "human capital" as healthy and happy as possible.

Most large businesses offer some form of stress and anxiety counselling, coupled with flexible working to help employees manage their work/life balance.

For example, telecoms group BT offers its staff a real-time online chat facility with Relate, the family relationships charity, that can provide anonymous and convenient help.

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionJonathan Trott returned from England's tour of Australia because of a stress-related illness

Monitoring stress levels

But a growing number are also using the latest diagnostic testing equipment and a range of new technologies to help them spot problems before they arise.

Joe Dunbar, director of operations at IPRO Interactive, a health diagnostics provider serving sport, the military and the corporate sectors, says: "We can now measure employee stress levels using a portable saliva testing machine that can give us an accurate reading in minutes, rather than hours in a laboratory."

The reader, which costs about £1,500 and is manufactured by German medicare company Qiagen, measures levels of the main stress hormone cortisol, as well as other hormones such as testosterone and immunoglobulin.

High stress levels can reduce our immune systems and make us more susceptible to illness and coronary heart disease, research shows.

image copyrightIPRO Interactive
image captionQiagen says portable diagnostic machines such as its hormone reader are particularly helpful for businesses with mobile workforces

"Once we know what an employee's stress level is we can then put interventions in place," says Mr Dunbar, "from encouraging more exercise to changing work patterns."

English Premier League football clubs, such as Manchester United and Manchester City, are big users of the technology, he says, to help them devise bespoke training regimes for their their highly-paid players.

Tuberculosis threat

image copyrightcomplete coherence
image captionSarah Watkins says allowing executives to monitor their heart rate can help prevent burn-out

Martin Potgeter, Qiagen's senior director of corporate development, says portable diagnostic machines are particularly helpful for international businesses whose mobile workforces are vulnerable to picking up infections and diseases as they travel between countries.

One area of growing concern is latent tuberculosis (TB), which lies dormant in people but can become active if immune systems are weakened.

About a third of the world's population has latent TB, says the World Health Organization (WHO), and roughly 10% of those go on to develop the highly-infectious active form of the disease.

In 2012, 8.6 million people fell ill with TB and 1.3 million died from it, the WHO says.

"Latent TB testing for industry is one of our fastest-growing markets," says Mr Potgeter. "Our clients include Guinness, Heineken, Exxon Mobil, Mercedes Benz and NASA."

The Qiagen hormone reader is being adapted to allow TB tests in the new year, he added.

Complete Coherence, a "bio-science-powered performance coaching" company whose clients include Unilever, BT, the Post Office and Deutsche Bank, uses heart rate monitoring and hormone measurement to help senior executives achieve a healthier, more productive lifestyle.

"Heart rate variability is a good indicator of burn-out and potential sudden death," says Sarah Watkins, the company's founding director.

"Using our wearable cardiosense trainer and uploading the data to our software programme can help executives change their breathing and improve their heart rate. It's all about preventing disease before we have to treat it."

'Nudge' tactics

But this kind of personal monitoring using the latest hi-tech equipment is still expensive, despite the fact that such diagnostic kit is becoming cheaper.

Companies with large workforces are resorting to "nudge" tactics instead - encouraging rather than enforcing healthier living.

StepJockey recently unveiled its Department of Health-backed scheme to add "smart labels" to workplace staircases, enabling users to work out how many calories they burn when they use the stairs and incorporate that data into a fitness-tracking app.

John Harries, head of health and life sciences for Samsung Enterprise Business Europe, says: "The big breakthrough in workplace healthcare will be around the use of consumer electronics and smartphones. These things are a lot cheaper than purpose-built devices and they are familiar to use."

Smartphones, smartwatches and sensor-laden wristbands can already measure heart rate, blood pressure, and calories burned through exercise, with all the data uploadable to software programs that can track performance and provide advice and encouragement.

"The next iteration of our Samsung Galaxy phone will have more health sensors built in," says Mr Harries. "The direction of travel is to build up this kind of health monitoring capability even more."

The main barriers to wider adoption of such technology in the workplace are ethical not technological, he argues, because there is still a stigma attached to mental health.

"The danger is that if you're struggling in your job and becoming anxious about it, you may feel under pressure to manage your own condition, worrying that your employer might use it as an excuse to get rid of you."

This is why building trust between employer and employee is key, he says.

And that is as true for top executives as it is for factory workers.

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