January 16, 2013

Q&A with Kathleen Hall, founder and CEO of The Stress Institute and The Mindful Living Network

Posted by: in North America

One of our 10 Trends for 2013 is the idea that we’re entering a Super Stress Era, with stressors mounting and multiplying, and stress becoming recognized as a significant medical and cost issue. In researching this trend, we spoke with Kathleen Hall, founder and CEO of The Stress Institute and The Mindful Living Network. Hall has written three books—Uncommon HOPE, A Life in Balance: Nourishing the Four Roots of True Happiness and Alter Your Life: Overbook? Overworked? Overwhelmed?—all offering simple methods for reducing stress, creating balance and living mindfully. She has also served as a stress-awareness spokesperson for Fortune 500 companies. Hall talked about why stress is on the rise today, the effects it has on physical and mental health, and how governments and corporations can work to reduce it.

Do you think people are more stressed now than they were five years ago?

Absolutely. I started my second book with a quote I just love. It says: “The single greatest threat to our lives is not the terrorists putting poison in the water or the pollution in the air. The single greatest threat to our lives is our lifestyle.” The reason I’m saying that is because it continues to get worse, our lifestyle. We’re obsessed with terrorists and the environment and everything else. But if we don’t change our lifestyle and decrease our stress, we’re not going to survive anyway.

More Americans are suffering from moderate to high stress, with 44 percent reporting their stress levels have increased over the last five years. When people feel out of control, when they feel uncertainty, that’s when the stress increases. And there are many factors that are increasing the feeling of uncertainty, powerlessness and being out of control. More than half of Americans are now suffering from chronic diseases. You can imagine the costs—especially in the future—are going to be astronomical.

What do you think has contributed to this spike in stress?

First is fear: fear of the unknown, fear of the loss of control in one’s life, fear of no money. And money becomes the No. 1, really. Foreclosures—even if it didn’t happen to you, the fear of “It could maybe happen to me.” Look what’s happening in Europe: Retirement and pensions went away. A lot of people lost their money in the stock markets, tremendous amounts of money.

Next is work and jobs. Heavy workloads—when you fire so many people or have to let them go, somebody has to take on those extra jobs or those extra tasks. And unrealistic job expectations: 40 percent say their companies and management have unrealistic job expectations. And third, people believe they work too long hours. You work longer hours because, again … you’re terrified you’re going to lose your job. So fear of losing your job and a shortage of jobs causes fear of losing your health insurance too. Again, no control; people have no control over the tide of the U.S. and global economy. Europe’s economy is going down the drain. And everybody knows we’re a global system now.

Next is relationships. Spouse, kids, boyfriend. The huge thing we don’t think about much is blended families. Those are tremendously stressful. Also, more people live alone in the United States than ever before. And by our nature, we need social support and community. This is essential for mental and physical health.

One of the last is information overload. The media has flooded us with local and global information and drama. And people become almost obsessed with news sites and what’s happening all over the world. Do we really need all the information we’re getting? And last but not least is loss of rituals. Humans need rituals. It’s part of our DNA. We can’t survive without them. And those are births, deaths, family, seasons, holidays, cultural rituals, meals together. Those are all rituals that have eroded.

What is the impact of stress on health?  

The long-term health impact is, 90 percent of visits to primary care physicians are stress-related. That’s huge. Stress is the driver of most diseases, and stress can also create disease, because of the continued change in hormones and the imbalance of the system. And research is showing us stress affects our health in almost everything. That’s tremendous on health insurance and on our government as far as paying these premiums. Hypertension is huge. Cancer is also driven because your immune response when you’re stressed changes.

Insomnia—globally insomnia has become an epidemic. When you don’t sleep it shifts your cortisol and causes all kinds of diseases. And also it’s huge in work because you become lethargic, not creative, not smart; you become aggressive and angry. Obesity and weight gain: We know that when you’re stressed, especially women, we put on the adipose tissue around the belly, and we usually do not lose it. Addictions: if you smoked before, if you drank before, when you’re stressed the addictions will come back almost immediately. It has a direct effect on aging. The telomeres that are in your DNA strands, when you’re stressed it actually shortens them and tightens them, and that can reduce your aging as much as nine years. Memory: Stress actually shrinks the brain; you lose neurons.

So those are the health impacts, medical health. But mental health: depression, anxiety. Individuals with depression have a 70 percent higher death rate from heart disease. And depression is the leading cause of disability in the United States between the ages of 15 and 44. Depression will be the second leading cause of illness and disability throughout the world by 2020. And you can say, Why are you talking about depression with stress? Well, once you have stress for an extended period of time, chronic stress, the body gets exhausted with so much epinephrine and cortisol. And when the body gets exhausted, it gets depressed. It’s a way the body slows down and says, “I need help.” So stress is a direct driver of depression. Also, sexual desire decreases. That’s the mental part.

Relationships are affected: spouse, partner, children, friends. And it affects your job. Anger and rage—we’ve seen company violence, bullying, shootings, sabotage in corporations. Absenteeism has grown, and productivity has gone down.

Do you think stress is a global concern from a health perspective?

Absolutely. And that’s why the World Health Organization, the NIH and CDC are all very concerned. Stress is the second leading cause of disability globally. And it will be even more by 2020.

How do you think we can prevent stress from becoming an even greater global epidemic?

I think every government should provide stress resilience training in schools. Young people are inheriting a more stressful world. These are the future consumers. These are the people that are going to lead the world and make the decisions for your and my health or where our money is going to go.

They’re already doing this in the military. Since we’ve had PTSD, we’ve had massive amounts of money that the government has put into stress resilience and teaching. We didn’t do it before they went over in the war or before they joined the service. They did it after the damage, the suffering. Corporations have traditionally been doing that too. They will send you to a doctor, but it’s a back-end approach, instead of teaching resilience to begin with.

Also, food, exercise, community: very simple things that we have proven scientifically for 30 years that are easy to do. And again, this would create less disease, less suffering, less health care costs as young people move into adulthood.

Should companies be doing more to alleviate stress among their employees?

Oh, absolutely. I’ve been very blessed to be a spokesperson for Unilever and Microsoft and Electronic Arts. And working with their marketing people and their people in Europe has taught me a lot. What I’ve noticed is that stress is really a global thing. So one of the first things I talk about is environmental stress in a corporation. Offices are bland; they are sterile. They are not stimulating, and they are not peaceful. Humans are not meant to be in environments like that, so the environmental stress is huge. It could be changed with not much money by decorating with color, with design, with architecture.

When you encourage employees, especially those in cubicles and those without windows, to decorate their workspace with things they love, that nourishes them. It increases productivity and creativity. Instead of coming into the corporation’s “structured space,” the employees’ spaces become their intimate spaces. They feel safe and much less stressed.

And there’s an emerging science in corporations, it’s called ecotherapy, and it’s grounded in the human need to be in nature. It’s part of our reptilian brain; we always have been in nature. Most corporations are suffering from what we call nature deficit disorder. And we’re seeing it more and more, because people are supposed to be stimulated by their environment. You can’t go work eight hours and sit there in a bland environment and expect somebody to be highly productive, creative. A company can think about the five senses, whether it’s letting someone hear a bird sound during the day or whether it’s running water, and the colors they’re looking at and the smells.

Also, flex time for employees. Daycare at work reduces employee stress and creates two families at work. You have your personal family, you have your child downstairs or your two children close where you can eat lunch with them. And then you have your work family. People are so loyal when they’re treated like a family. Also, it increases productivity, you will have much less absenteeism, health care costs drop incrementally—not just marginally—because people are using less sleeping pills, less SSRIs, they’re going to the doctor less.

The old corporate model is a titular head. There’s the CEO, the president, and that’s where the power has been. The corporate structure is shifting to collective input. Employees are less stressed when they feel included and valued and an equal part of the “family.” The new model is internally led; you actually have employees and managers that internally desire to do something for the corporation instead of being pressured by numbers and things from top-down. An old corporate model is based on dominating your environment. The new model is living in harmony. The new model is power within. Then your employees have confidence. They trust you. They hope. They feel valued. The new model is also based on inspiration.

The old model was frenetic, with multitasking. What we’re showing is the brain, over time, cannot sustain itself with multitasking. It will get burned out, and the brain will shrink even faster than it already does. So the new model is wellness prevention and teaching employees and teaching children resilience in schools.

What do you think marketers can do to reduce stress?

Be honest with your consumers at all times. Consumers want honesty, they want reliability, they want predictability, a trusted brand that cares about their family and their health and their well-being. People in our world desperately want relationship and community. And they want their workplace and the companies they work at and the things they purchase to value them as a family, to have that relationship. And your children will use exactly the same brands, they will not deviate. And again, the more stressed you are, the more you want a trusted brand because you feel out of control and unsafe.

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