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February 8, 2010

News & Opinion: Stressed out?

By: 800-CEO-READ @ 9:05 PM – Filed under: Management & Workplace Culture

2009 was a challenging year, and the challenges haven't stopped in 2010. In fact, we all are likely working even harder to dig ourselves out of last year, or maintain our solid standing in the current one. With that work, comes stress, and unless we manage that stress properly, our hearts will pay the price.

Dr. John M. Kennedy's new book just came out. Titled, The 15 Minute Heart Cure: The Natural Way to Release Stress and Heal Your Heart in Just Minutes a Day, the book provides a preventative approach to managing stress, and taking care of your heart. This isn't just a straight medical book; it's written with the perspective of the business person in mind, and addresses common situations and issues those people have, and how to maintain health in light of them.

Below is an supplementary article to the book. Check them both out, and take it easy!

Healing the Heart of Corporate America:
A Cardiologist’s Prescription

By John M. Kennedy, M.D.

The Problem—Stress in the Workplace

With mounting pressures of the economic crisis and uncertainty about recovery, companies are forced to work efficiently and economically, often resulting in downsizing to protect the bottom line. Inevitably, working leaner, leads to increasing demands and responsibilities of the existing workforce which creates unwanted workplace stress.

And as companies require employees to do more with less, it’s no wonder 30% of my patients are feeling the rising pressures and increasing demands at work. Stories of rising health care premiums, lost pensions, and fear of being laid off when taking vacation are just some of the stories I hear on a regular basis. Unfortunately, if we fail to recognize stress, over time it can wreak havoc on our cardiovascular system. In fact, studies show how work stress increases the risk of a cardiac event.

For example, for a study performed in the UK, 10,000 British government workers with long term job stress were followed over a 12 year period. This study was the first to show that on-the-job stress could cause cardiovascular disease either by a direct result of stress or indirectly by leading stressed employees to adopt unhealthy lifestyles. The study found that those with chronic job stress had a 68% higher chance of having a heart attack, developing angina or dying from heart disease.

Data suggests workplace stress increases cardiovascular mortality, particularly for those who feel physically strained, and who feel there is little or no chance for promotion and career advancement. As a practicing cardiologist, I’m reminded daily of the negative impact stress has on the hearts of my patients, especially in these difficult financial times.

Work stress increases cardiac risk in two ways. First, stress hormones released by the “fight-or- flight” response increase blood pressure and heart rate as well as inflammation, and blood clotting, all of which elevate the risk for a cardiac event. Second, when stressed, we tend to adopt maladaptive behaviors such as physical inactivity, smoking and drinking which create the perfect storm for a cardiac event.

The mechanisms relating heart disease and stress are many and include increased vascular resistance (higher pressure in our arteries), enhanced platelet activity (thick, clot-prone blood), hypertension (high blood pressure), coronary vasospasm (blood flow-limiting constriction), inflammation, electrical instability (erratic heart beat) , and enhanced atherosclerosis (plaque build up in arteries).

What’s more, longitudinal studies show those with high workplace stress are more likely to develop blood cholesterol problems and increased body mass index. And increased body mass index is associated with the metabolic syndrome which is a cluster of signs, symptoms and diagnoses including high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol, blood sugar problems, and increased waist size—all known risk factors for cardiovascular disease.

In addition to jeopardizing health, stress leads to decreased company morale increased absenteeism, diminished productivity, employee turnover, and accidents which cost American business more than the annual total net profits of the Fortune 500 companies. And it’s estimated that US industry loses approximately 550 million workdays each year due to absenteeism further impacting profits.

I refer to these data as the “heart cold facts” which clearly demonstrate how heart disease and work stress are directly linked, and illustrate why now, more than ever before, companies need to maintain the health and wellness of their valued employees.

The Solution—Managing Stress in the Workplace

So, how can companies keep employees, their most important asset, healthy in such challenging times?
Well, despite all the doom and gloom, more and more data is emerging showing the effectiveness of stress management strategies in lowering cardiac risk. And not only does stress management appear to reduce the long-term chances of heart patients having another cardiac event, but a new analysis by Duke University Medical Center researchers and the American Psychological Association demonstrates that this approach also provides an immediate and significant cost savings. Moreover, the researchers found, the financial benefit of stress management was maintained over time.

Realizing the importance and value of employee health, progressive companies are investing in elaborate corporate wellness programs. Many include a variety of healthy lifestyle activities ranging from fitness memberships to online stress management and smoking cessation classes. A number of such programs have shown substantial cost savings.

Cardiologist’s Rx:

Although awareness and cost effectiveness of corporate wellness is appropriately increasing, programs using simple, accessible, stress relieving techniques that can be used on a daily basis, are few and far between.

After hearing thousands of stories of people stressing out at work and seeing the toll it takes on their hearts, I felt compelled to help employees reduce their stress in the workplace and I often tell my patients that lowering stress is as important as treating blood pressure, lowering cholesterol, treating blood sugar, and smoking cessation.

The reason it is so important to learn effective coping mechanisms is that when we ignore the signs of stress we’re less physically active and develop poor dietary habits. Conversely, when we are aware of our stressful triggers and learn to effectively cope with stress, we are more likely to exercise regularly and eat a balanced diet.

So I set out to develop a solution, and developed the BREATHE™ technique, a seven-step exercise that helps reduce stress and heal your heart. BREATHE™ combines two proven forms of relaxation—guided imagery and breath work—and puts a modern spin on ancient wisdom. Both of these techniques elicit the “relaxation response” which is opposite the “stress response”. When practiced regularly, like toning your muscles in the gym, you’ll develop a special neural network that will help you focus and find a sense of calm when faced with one of life’s unexpected stressful challenges.

B is for Begin: In order to develop a rhythm and routine, find the right time of day and a comfortable, quiet place to practice the meditation.

R is for Relax: Though it may seem counterintuitive, relaxation requires focused and conscious breathing. Try to clear all thoughts and concentrate only on your breath.

E is for Envision: I present special imagery exercises and give specific healing metaphors to help lower heart rate, blood pressure, and strengthen the immune system.

A is for Apply: “When reading through the guided imagery exercises and observing the accompanying art, imagine how the heart-healing images and metaphors can be applied and relate to a healthy heart.” By practicing each heart-healing metaphor regularly, they will be filed away in your memory bank, and become retrievable and accessible for high-stress situations.

T is for Treat: The BREATHE™ technique is a pleasurable and therapeutic exercise. Practicing regularly, like exercising in the gym, will foster feelings of elation and happiness.

H is for Heal: The goal of this technique is to unite neural networks that connect your heart and brain, decreasing blood pressure, enhancing immune response, and lowering pulse rate.

E is for End: Every effective exercise has a formal beginning and ending.