By G. Brent Darnell

According to the World Health Organization, mental disease including stress related disorders will be the second leading cause of disabilities by the year 2020.
The United States is number one in stress related illnesses, but Sweden is not far behind. Having lived and worked in Sweden for two years, it amazes me how the Swedes are starting to live more like Americans. They are working longer hours, they are taking less vacation time, and they're experiencing higher levels of stress and burnout. And when they do take their vacations, they bring their Blackberries along, so they are never truly unplugged. Many don’t take their full week of sportlovet (spring break in all lower schools) but meet their families for the weekend. Many fathers don’t take their paternity leave but continue to work.
I have been a member of the SACC-Georgia for several years now, and I have noticed that stress and burnout is becoming a problem for companies worldwide. This is a topic of discussion at many meetings.
In this tough economy, we are being asked to do more with less. Many have taken cuts in pay, which adds to financial stress. People are frantically trying to procure work. In addition, as work ramps back up, companies are reluctant to hire immediately, which puts the burden on the remaining employees. The physical and mental demands are tremendous. Many employees are working 60-, 80-, even 100-hour weeks, sometimes for weeks or months at a time.
Many of the so-called first world societies are developing stress related illnesses such as heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes at an alarming rate. Many use both prescription and over-the-counter medications to control the symptoms of stress—headaches, stomach problems, allergies, pain, fatigue, sleeping difficulties, diminished libido and irritability. It is much easier to pop pills than address the underlying stressors, which were the cause of many of these symptoms.

Develop ‘emotional intelligence’
The smart companies are beginning to wake up to this reality and address these issues. One way to monitor stress is through emotional intelligence. The emotional intelligence evaluation we use for personal development measures stress and burnout by measuring such traits as stress tolerance, self-actualization, happiness and optimism. That way, we can determine if stress and burnout are problems and deal with them before they manifest themselves in the form of sickness, low productivity, absenteeism and chronic disease.
What if companies started offering more vacation time, more flextime and more ways for their employees to recover? The costs would be minimal compared with the results. Most people we interviewed said they would take a substantial cut in pay to be able to have more time off. Just by investing a little bit into their people, companies would have happier, less stressed, more loyal, more productive employees.
One very effective way to renew the body is by doing yoga and meditation. During our courses, managers are taught these basic techniques as a way to reduce stress and create better focus. The more we study the brain, the more we see the connection between the mind and body. When we reduce stress, we reduce cortisol, a hormone that is secreted during the “fight or flight” response. Cortisol shuts down the thinking brain because when you are being chased by a lion, it is not in your best interest to over-analyze the situation. Without this hormone rush, we are able to think more clearly and solve problems more readily. We are able to be in a concept called “flow,” where body and mind are in harmony with each other and both work as efficiently as possible. This results in fewer sick days and more stamina.

Mens sana in corpore sano
(From the latin: A sound mind in a sound body) Study after study confirm what we already have known for a long time to be true: If we are sharp mentally, we function better physically and vice versa. Companies are starting to realize the importance of addressing these health issues for their workers not only to make them more productive, but also to curb high healthcare costs.
In an article titled, “Wellness Program Cures Rising Health Care Costs," Cianbro Corporation, a large heavy civil and industrial contractor, addressed rising healthcare costs head-on. In 2001, they paid $11.5 million in healthcare, but these costs were projected to reach $20 million by 2004. So, in 2001, they started a voluntary wellness program for their employees. They reduced the percentage of smokers from 46 percent to 20 percent. 34 percent of their employees are exercising on a regular basis, and there has been a 20 percent reduction in hypertension and a 25 percent reduction in high cholesterol. Since 2001, instead of almost doubling, their healthcare costs have remained flat. They conservatively estimate that they get a $3.50 return per every dollar they invest in the wellness program, and this money goes straight to the bottom line.
Companies must pay attention to this epidemic in stress and burnout and take it very seriously if they want to emerge from this recession and be able to compete. To put it very simply, healthy, happy employees contribute more to the bottom line. They have fewer sick days and are more productive. So, what are you going to do to change your approach toward the stress in your life?

Brent Darnell is the president of Brent Darnell International, a firm that specializes in a holistic approach to personal development. To find out more about this work, visit Brent’s Web sites at www.brentdarnell.com and www.totalleadershipprogram.com. He can also be reached at brent@brentdarnell.com or (404) 816-4701.

[Start a Laugh Club]
Study after study confirm what we already know to be true. If we are sharp mentally, we function better physically and vice versa. Reducing stress through meditation has also been shown to increase the immune response and improve the body’s healing process. Yoga and meditation certainly aren’t for everyone, but we encourage participants to find “their” yoga. For some it is a sport such as golf, hunting, fishing, sailing or some kind of hobby or recreational pursuit. It may be music or exercise or spending time with their family.
Several companies have implemented laugh time each day. Employees gather to tell jokes and laugh. This message of laughter has caught on in a big way. Laugh clubs are being formed all over the world. In fact, Glaxo and Volvo have organized laugh clubs in their organizations because of the positive benefits.
No matter what you decide to do, the important thing is to build in that reflection time and downtime each day where work is no longer the focus.

SACC-Georgia, the regional Swedish American Chamber of Commerce located in Atlanta, has an event with Darnell on May 6—’How Relationships Generate New Business.’ It runs from 5:30 PM to 8:30 PM to facilitate participation. For more info, see www.sacc-georgia.org or call 770-670-2480.