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Safeguard Magazine

Managing fight or flight

How can Christchurch employers help staff deal with the after effects of the earthquake? JACKIE BROWN-HAYSOM reports

Neuroscientist and physiologist Lee Polychronopoulos has some pointed advice for Christchurch employers: Just because your people seem to be doing ok, don’t make the mistake of assuming that it’s business as usual.

After working with a number of Canterbury companies in the aftermath of the February quake, workplace wellness consultant Polychronopoulos says the stress of recurring aftershocks is playing havoc with sleeping patterns, which has serious implications for on-the-job performance.

“People are in a constant state of arousal – of fight or flight,” she says. “I went to one organisation where 70% of staff were on anti-anxiety medication.”

People experiencing fear want to stay on guard, so will regularly rouse themselves from sleep, she says.

“This results in very impaired, poor quality sleep. You may be sleeping for eight hours, but you’re actually waking up more tired.”

Healthy sleep involves a cyclical progression through five stages, with different physiological and neurological processes occurring at each level. Prolonged anxiety of the sort that many Christchurch residents are experiencing prevents the deepest, most restorative stage of sleep, increasing susceptibility to both infection and injury.

“Accident levels are up [in Christchurch] and people are picking up every cough and cold. You can’t live in that space, so employers need to be aware of the problem and think about how they can help.”

Sleeping on the job?

The first step is to recognise that people are likely to be coming to work fatigued, Polychronopoulos says.

“What is your policy on napping? Many organisations have zero tolerance, but US research has shown that you can increase productivity by over 50% by having a 20 minute nap during a lunch break.”

Some Christchurch companies have been encouraging weary workers to take naps, but in other workplaces nodding off remains a sackable offence, and even naps during break times are looked on negatively.

“Employers need to work out what their policy is around napping. It’s reasonable to assume that everyone is more or less fatigued, especially after a bad night.

“You can’t have people who are impaired [by fatigue] making safety critical decisions, so you have to meet your people where they are.”

Good communication is vital she says. Employers need to know how their workers are feeling and how fit they are for work.

“If they’re not feeling fit, how do you manage it? Do you let them have a nap in the afternoon?

“Figure out what your strategies are, because if you don’t deal with fatigue it will go underground and become more dangerous. I’ve heard stories of people sleeping in the most terrifying places, just because there is a zero tolerance policy.”

Keep moving

Workers in sedentary or inactive roles may also need short exercise breaks, to help metabolise the chemicals that the body produces under stress.

“When we live in a state of constant fear it foods the body with glucose, cholesterol, adrenaline and noradrenaline. If all that stuff hangs around in the blood it will start doing long-term damage, so people need exercise to minimise what’s going on.”

The situation doesn’t call for a prolonged or strenuous workout, however. Polychronopoulos suggests a short, brisk walk, or climbing a fight of stairs.

Health and safety tends to focus on hazards and worst-case scenarios, but the best way to help workers deal with fear is to discourage long discussions about quake-related problems and reinforce the message that they are safe, she says.

“What we say to people directly impacts us. There is scientific proof that the things we say influence how our brain perceives our situation – our brains literally obey what we tell them.”

People need to start rewriting their own stories, she says, telling themselves – preferably out loud – that they are safe and are going to sleep well all night.

“Start changing what’s happening in your body by changing what’s happening in your mind. If you speak positively instead of discussing your fears you will change your thought process and create a more calm state.

“This isn’t airy-fairy stuff – it’s neuro-science, the science of the brain.”

Food for moods

Food also plays an important role in shaping mood. People who are not sleeping well are likely to feel unusually hungry because they are producing less leptin, an appetite suppressing hormone that is released during sleep. Choosing the right foods to satisfy this hunger is especially important, however, because levels of serotonin, the so-called happy hormone, also fall when sleep is disturbed. Foods that will boost serotonin levels include leafy green vegetables, cocoa, cashew nuts and goji berries.

“You want foods that are high in tryptophan. Raw foods are good too – don’t cook the life out of your food.”

Polychronopoulos is concerned that Christchurch doctors may be prescribing sleeping pills, antidepressants and anti-anxiety medication – all of which impact adversely on sleep patterns – without considering the alternatives.

“It’s important to look at the way we eat, the way we move our bodies, the way we think, and the way we sleep.

“Do that first and, if necessary, then look at prescription medication. There will be situations where it is required, but please don’t make it the first option.”


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