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Anxious workplaces to blame for back aches

AAP logoAAP 14/05/2017 Sarah Wiedersehn
The impact of anxiety, stress and mood on your body is huge. © Shutterstock The impact of anxiety, stress and mood on your body is huge.

That challenging colleague could literally be the reason for the pain in your neck, leading physiotherapist and mind body expert Anna-Louise Bouvier says.

Even more so than inactivity or lack of sleep.

The impact of anxiety, stress and mood on your body is huge, which is why Ms Bouvier - a specialist in back and neck injuries - is tackling the growing problem of anxious workplaces.

"Increasingly there is a huge amount of evidence now linking the two, whereas even 15 years ago we weren't talking about that connection so much," Ms Bouvier said.

"It doesn't matter if people are sitting in offices, face-to-face with customers, or whether they're midwives and nurses, people are just being asked to do more with less, they're time poor, they're tired, they're cutting corners and where they're cutting corners is on movement and exercise and it's just not sustainable," she told AAP.

In partnership with national broadcaster ABC, Ms Bouvier now runs wellbeing program Happy Body at Work, designed to improve mental and physical resilience.

A pilot trial of the Happy People program was rolled out to Optus Retail employees across Australia last year.

Postdoctoral analysis of the program conducted through the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences at the Macquarie University found aches and pains were very common among the employees, with 37 per cent reporting two more physical complaints.

The most common complaints were back pain (43%), headaches (41%) and neck tension (38%).

A significant number of employees reported low levels of energy (41%), with just over half reporting less than eight hours of sleep each night.

Surprisingly, the biggest reason for their aches and pains was their inability to manage stress and recognise and deal with the mood of others, said Ms Bouvier.

"We thought that all that neck pain and back pain would be related to how much they sit, how much they exercise, how many hours they're in bed, no relationship at all."

The analysis of the Optus pilot trial showed 32 per cent of employees reported difficulty in knowing how to respond appropriately to someone else's mood, and 26 per cent reported difficulty in managing their emotions when faced with an angry customer.

"What you see is that that psychological pressure in their working lives is not coming out in people yelling and screaming at each other, it comes out in your body," Ms Bouvier said.

"The vast majority of us swallow our stress and eventually it's like a leaking dyke, it just pops out somewhere," she said.

Physical complaints and disturbed sleep are all signs of chronic anxiety, says clinical psychologist Dr Sarah Edelman.

Prolonged anxiety, she says, can also affect people's functioning at work

"Ongoing anxiety sometimes leads to poorer performance, poorer outcomes at work and more likely to get absenteeism and workers comp claims when people are really under long-term stress without good management," she said.

What is anxiety?

* Anxiety is a perception of threat - feeling under pressure, feeling unsafe, feeling aroused

* Most people feel anxious and worried from time to time, especially faced with a stressful situation (eg exam, job interview)

* Generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) is when a person feels anxious and worried most of the time, interfering with their normal lives

* For people with GAD, minor issues lead to uncontrollable worries and a feeling that something terrible will happen

What are the physical signs and symptoms of anxiety?

* Racing heart

* Tightening of the chest

* Rapid breathing

* Muscle tension

* Butterflies in stomach

* Headache

* High startle reflex

* Fatigue

* Digestive problems

* Disturbed sleep

What can anxiety look like in the workplace?

* Avoidance of tasks or situations

* Difficulty focusing, constantly move from one task to the other

* Procrastination

Lifestyle Measures to Manage Anxiety:

* Physical exercise

* Healthy diet

* Enough sleep

* Time out for relaxation

* Seek social support

(Source: Beyond Blue, clinical psychologist Dr Sarah Sarah Edelman)

Australian readers seeking support and information about depression can contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.

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