Ridiculous deadlines? Call the stress-busters

The number of people seeking stress therapy has doubled in 10 years. Ian Hunter finds a company that helps them to cope
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The potential cost to employers of workers suffering from stress is not restricted to the payment of damages and legal costs. According to the Health and Safety Executive, stress-related disorders now account for 90 million lost working days annually.

Stress-related problems caused by a range of factors - including fear of unemployment, financial worries and job frustration - have caused the number of Britons receiving stress counselling to double in 10 years to 150,000.

But help is at hand. Opera Communications, headed by Nick Kitchen, is one of a growing number of companies providing businesses with advice and training on stress management. The north London-based business and management training organisation, launched five years ago, has worked for clients such as the giants AT&T and the Ford as well as many smaller companies.

The courses, which normally last for one or two days, are adapted to cater for the needs of particular groups of employees, ranging from senior management to junior executives. Participants are encouraged to play out roles in work situations. These exercises help them to recognise their often habitual behaviour patterns, which may no longer be effective in certain situations. Advice can then be given on how to modify the behaviour.

Mr Kitchen, a former senior advertising agency executive, says: "Stress in itself is a necessary physiological response, which gives us energy to get things done. The real problem is unhealthy overstress, which normally is what we mean when we discuss stress. The problems start when people are no longer able to manage their time effectively and have a sense of being out of control."

Effective counselling requires an understanding of the individual's personality traits. "Different functions create stresses for different people," Mr Kitchen says. "Sustained overstress gradually makes people less and less effective and more prone to poor health. Unfortunately, the normal response is actually to work harder and longer hours to make up for the drop in effectiveness, thereby increasing the stress. The professions, such as law and accountancy, are particularly prone."

In an effort to deal with this, Opera Communications runs different exercises. These include encouraging employees to analyse how they communicate with others. Effective communication can reduce misunderstanding and the stress associated with it. "The purpose is to get employees to think about how they can improve their performance by changing their method of communicating," says Mr Kitchen.

Assertiveness training is one technique by which communication skills can be improved. Stress-related problems are often caused by unrealistic demands being imposed on employees. Mr Kitchen says that these problems can often be reduced by simple techniques. "For example, too often employees accept ridiculous deadlines from their clients by way of a kneejerk reaction. Dedicated workers find it difficult to say no. Agreeing unworkable timetables is in no one's interest," Mr Kitchen says.

"Sadly, even though a breakdown or stress-related illness is often an opportunity to rectify matters, too often employees simply go back to doing exactly what they did before - precisely the things which led to the breakdown in the first place."