The silent threat of modern life

4 June 2018 - 3-4 minute read

Silent threats - stress, inactivity, sleep loss and always-on demands are attracting a sharper focus.

It used to be, when someone said: How are you? we'd answer: Fine, thanks. Now, most people say something like: I'm crazy busy.

It also used to be that, when we were out of the office, with friends and family or even on holiday, it was a kind of haven. Now, our lifestyle tends to be like our technology - always on, always there, always demanding action, action, action not just when we are sitting, sitting, sitting at our desks but even when we're not.

Our mobile phones, for example, are both our greatest tool and our entertainment - but they have also given rise to a phenomenon now known as nomophobia , an anxiety disorder characterized by a fear of being without a phone or out of phone contact.

One Auckland journalist says he takes his laptop on holiday always and gardens hundreds of emails while he is away. If I don't, he says, I know I am coming back to an enormous, depressing backlog which will take time away from all the other things I will have to do.

These are small examples of what leading health insurer Southern Cross Health Society says is a much larger problem. Modern life may be helping us live longer through advances in health and medicine, but it is contributing to health risks in other ways.

The scale of the issue has quietly grown to huge proportions. Last year, the World Health Organisation said 40 million people die globally each year from non-communicable diseases (NCDs) - 70 per cent of all deaths in the world.

John Hopkins, the renowned medical school in the US, says physical inactivity may increase the risk of NCDs like cancer, anxiety and depression, cardiovascular diseases, coronary heart disease, high blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

Factors like inactivity, a sedentary lifestyle, stress and sleep deprivation are now thought to have a significant impact on our health and wellbeing. Our lifestyle, has turned what used to be known as work-life balance into an unbalanced stew of potentially deadly and often work-based stress. We are less active, more stressed, sleep less and spend more time indoors.

Money worries, technology dependence, consumerism, competition, work ethic, fear of failure and the need to provide for family are all drivers - and that's even before we get to other stimulants of stress.

Almost three in four New Zealanders (73 per cent) aged under 50 feel stressed on a weekly basis, with over half feeling stressed at least several times a week, according to research company Kantar TNS in late 2016.

Southern Cross's 2017 Wellness in the Workplace survey of more than 93,000 Kiwi employees showed stress levels on the rise - with the top five reasons: general workload, relationship issues, pressure to meet targets, management style/work relationships and long working hours.

The problem is slowly becoming recognised worldwide. In 2000 France famously legislated a 35-hour working week. New laws there ask companies to negotiate with workers if they want them to work outside office hours - a factor known to compound stress and impact work-life balance.

The Australian National University recently found that working more than 39 hours a week is a risk to wellbeing. In the US, researchers have found workers are productive for about four hours a day - the rest is padding and large amounts of anxiety. In Sweden, a government-funded study showed workers who did six hours a day for an eight-hour salary, produced a leap in productivity, less sick leave and, importantly, reduced stress.

A survey of New Zealand workplaces by Southern Cross found that more than 40 per cent of Kiwis still turn up to work even when sick, in spite of improvements in business culture encouraging them not to.

Do they feel guilty for taking leave? Do they feel they will fall too far behind? asks Southern Cross Health Society chief marketing officer Chris Watney. The Society's survey also showed 56 per cent of Kiwis did not think their employer was doing enough to support their health and wellbeing.

The work we have done looking at modern life suggests that people's issues are multi-dimensional, he says. Sleep deprivation, time pressures, money worries, over-attachment to technology and a sedentary lifestyle are just some of the issues Kiwis are telling us about.

While there is no silver bullet for the pressure of modern life, small lifestyle changes can make a difference in the long run.

The society's response to address workplace practices is BeingWell, a workplace wellness programme for Kiwi businesses, inspired by its own ten-year employee wellness scheme. It focuses on four areas of health: eating, sleeping, mental health and exercise - and is aimed at not only bettering health and wellbeing but reducing turnover, making employees more productive and engaged.

Watney says 93 per cent of Southern Cross employees now feel the business cares about their wellbeing. There's a business imperative too: staff turnover has reduced by 31 per cent in the past three years. That's significant when you consider it can cost a business 150 per cent of salary to replace an employee.