Take it easy, it's really not worth it

A leading Dubai-based psychologist warns that stress is starting to hit the region's workforce due to a lack of balance in people's lives

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By  Barnaby Chesterman Published  February 6, 2001

50% of people are suffering|~||~||~|Half the Middle East work force could be suffering from stress according to Psychologist, Dr. Raymond Hamden, director of the Comprehensive Medical Centre in Dubai.

“I don’t know the exact figures,” he says. “But it wouldn’t surprise me if the figures for people suffering from stress related symptoms were as high as 50%.” As a result, Dr. Hamden says that a lot more individuals and organisations are starting to invest time and money into stress management programmes.

Employees constantly complaining to their bosses about being overworked will feel vindicated to hear the reason for this apparent outbreak: work. But, employers worry not, because it’s not quite as black and white as that.

While Dr. Hamden identifies work as central to many symptoms of stress, it is more a case of balance and focus than work being unhealthy. “Stress is caused if work is the only focus in a person’s life,” he says. This is a particular problem in the UAE and Dubai in particular because it is so business-centric.

“When people come here, they do so because of business, not because it’s a great place to live,” explains Dr. Hamden. “The whole mind-set in coming here is work oriented.”

That extends beyond the workplace into every-day aspects of life. People in the Emirates often socialise with colleagues or for work reasons, whether that be a business lunch or conducting business on the 13th fairway. Their children may even be educated in the Emirates rather than their country of origin, and that’s because of work.
Becoming stressed is a dangerous path to tread according to Dr. Hamden, because it can quickly spiral out of control. And once stress sets in this can lead towards burn-out, as the effects of stress tend to cause the symptoms that started them in the first place.

Dr. Hamden has identified three types of stressors that will in turn lead to stress in an individual. These are biological, psychological and social stressors. Biological stressors can be infection, disease, malnutrition, physical trauma and fatigue. Psychological stressors range from threats of physical harm to attacks on self-esteem, whether self-inflicted or inflicted by others. And social stressors are such problems as crowding, excessive noise, economic pressures and war.

When these stressors lead to burn out, the individual suffers a variety of ailments. These can be difficulty focussing, physical fatigue, low energy, irritability and negative attitude. They may also become idealistic, inflexible and develop indecisive viewpoints. Dr. Hamden identifies several phases, beginning with emotional exhaustion, then followed by the person becoming cynical or defensive. They then start to isolate themselves and become anti-social and may even become defeatist.

Symptoms of stress can be difficulty sleeping, changing eating habits, and total focus on the stressors which can manifest itself in depression. In extreme cases, Dr. Hamden says people may even start having a Thanatos wish (death wish or instinct).

||**||Find time to take a break|~||~||~|Dr. Hamden believes the reliance on computers in the workplace is a major factor in developing these symptoms. On almost every desk today there is a computer. Consequently people spend most of their time interacting with the computer rather than with people. “One is very vulnerable to computers,” explains Dr. Hamden. He says there are two factors which can lead to frustration at work. “One is the fallibility of the computer and the dependency and vulnerability we have to it. And the other thing is too much electronic interaction takes away from human interaction.”

The way to guard against it is apparently to encourage human interaction. Dr. Hamden says a play room can make a difference. Or just a place where people can take coffee breaks and chat. He also says team interaction should be encouraged, even if it’s just for half an hour a day. In fact Dr. Hamden is quite an advocate of breaks in general.

He feels that lack of productivity can lead to stress and his solution to that is breaks. To balance your life he says that no matter how many things you have to do, you should always find time to take a break. “The brain is like a muscle,” he says. “You can’t walk into a gym and just start pumping iron for eight hours straight. Likewise you can’t work the brain for eight hours straight, you’ll be non-productive.”

In an eight-hour day, Dr. Hamden says that there may be only 2.8 hours that are productive. Through his work he believes that this productivity can be increased by taking regular breaks. “We’re finding that if we help individuals to change their schedules so that they work for 45 minutes and then take 15 minutes off, they can actually get a lot more done in an eight hour day than if they work straight through,” he says.

So the message from Dr. Hamden is ‘take a break.’ But more importantly it is to ensure that work is not the only focus. Dr. Hamden’s new book “Balanced For Life” explains that there are four areas of a balanced life. These are work, which is your sense of productivity; play, which is recreation or sports; love and a sense of belonging, whether to god, fellow human beings, family or romantically; and living principles, which is worship, attitudes towards life, traditions, customs, ethics and morals.

Dr. Hamden says all four areas are very important to a balanced life. But where the imbalance happens is when work starts creeping into the other areas or those areas are neglected because of work. So if you want to avoid stress, stop working so hard. Now try explaining that to your boss.
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