Feature: One day - two stories of stress

How stressful is life in the PR industry? To find out, two PROs - one in-house, one agency - allowed a professor to test them over a typical day. Peter Crush views the results.

If you think you are stressed at work, then you probably are: by the time you experience stress, your body has already raised its blood pressure, changed its metabolic rate and overridden its immune system, ready for a fight.

While dealing with pressure is a fact of everyday working life, too much stress (rather than simply being busy), can have a serious impact on health.

So, with PROs under increasing pressure to meet targets and work longer days (PRWeek Salary Survey 2006), just how stressed are they becoming?

PRWeek teamed up with the University of Westminster (UoW) to record the stress levels of one in-house and one agency PRO during the course of a typical day (download full article in PDF to view the results).

You might want to compare their days with yours. According to UoW professor of psychophysiology Angela Clow - who tested all of the Big Brother contestants this year - the ‘spikes' produced by one of our PROs represents a stress level equivalent to that felt by a first-time parachutist being unwillingly pushed from a plane.

Alan Twigg 43, managing director, Nexus PR
Twigg's day was mainly office-bound and comprised board meetings, new-business pitches, client conference calls, and training and planning meetings. 

Giorgio Rondelli 26, PR co-ordinator, Ikea
Rondelli was hosting a major launch: Ikea's new Stockholm range. It was the company's biggest ever, with 250 journalists attending a major press event followed by a party that night.

‘I'm fairly laid back. At work, if we're stressed there will be support from the others'

WHAT WE MEASURED

Twigg and Rondelli's cortisol levels were measured throughout the day. The hormones are triggered when the body perceives an imminent threat. Stress and cortisol are essentially the same thing. A normal person should show a steady decline in cortisol from five nanomoles per litre to two throughout the day.

Twigg and Rondelli gave hourly saliva samples. It takes 20 minutes for cortisol to work its way to the saliva; there is thus a delay between a stressful situation and visible stress peaks.

Professor Clow on Alan Twigg
‘Four hours after waking, Alan is nearly on the normative line. This suggests he did not anticipate a bad day. Increased cortisol thereafter suggests a negative response to his day: levels are more than double what they should be. However, Alan returns to low evening levels, showing he can switch off. Given the sustained increase in cortisol over the day, I wonder if Alan quietly stews away.'

Twigg's response
‘These results look pretty accurate. The only time I remember feeling an adrenaline rush was towards the end of the day during a pitch. The peak around 4pm corresponds with a board meeting where - let's just say I was having a healthy debate. I'm surprised at the consistent rise throughout the day, though I'm happy with my ability to switch off. Professor Clow thinks the gradual rise in stress means I stew. I don't agree, though I prefer to wait until what I feel is an appropriate time to let something out. Would I change my day to get the stressful stuff out of the way first? Probably not. There's an inevitability of a day getting busier as it goes on.'

Professor Clow on Giorgio Rondelli
‘Giorgio's readings put him in the top five per cent of stressful people. The profile is dynamic, almost explosive, suggesting negative responses to what is going on around him. Were there three major negative events about 15-30 minutes before the peaks at 1pm, 2.15pm and 8pm? The good news is that between these events he recovers quickly. The bad news is that he is so high late into the evening. Was he still at work and worrying? This profile makes me think of a youngish man who may be out of his depth in the working situation on that day.'

Rondelli's response
‘I missed some saliva collection times in the morning, because the day's stress made me forget! I can see where stress levels mirrored my day. The first was when I was briefing designers from Sweden, which was not my job. The last was as we were getting ready for the launch party. I wouldn't say I felt out of my depth, but I did feel as if I was about to go on stage. There was pressure to get the launch off with a bang. I don't remember it as stress, but I certainly felt a lot of adrenaline.'

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