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September 11, 2021

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Strung out at work? Most are. A calming chat with Shanghai’s stress counselor

STRESS — we all know what it feels like, and each handle it differently. Be it thoughts speeding up or grinding to a halt, high blood pressure and low libido, or crying into a 2am delivery of Homeslice Pizza.

I’m one of those annoying people who loves what they do. I have autonomy over my work, bosses’ backing and a deep sense of purpose in being your columnist. But my job is still the most stressful part of my life. Sometimes, the relentless pursuit of ideas combined with tight turnarounds and a ton of self-criticism feels like being trapped in a washing machine set to spin. Stress is a personal experience, so tweak that scenario in whichever way you like and lay it over the population. It’s no wonder six in 10 of us are strung out at work, and the World Health Organization recognize burnout as a chronic condition.

Stress is part and parcel of any workplace. So how do we move forward? I sat down with stress counselor and life coach Ans Hooft for a calming chat about keeping it cool.

What is stress?

Stress is a natural mechanism triggered by real or perceived threats. It’s inbuilt, and we need it. Stress once helped humans survive in the wild and avoid being eaten. Today, it drives us to be competitive or meet deadlines. So, there’s nothing wrong with stress. Problems occur when we experience high levels of tension for prolonged periods.

You mention real and perceived threats. How do we know the difference?

That’s a very good question. The truth is our bodies can’t tell the difference and so react the same way to both. The image of a screaming boss means the same to our brains today as becoming a lion’s lunch once did. The only way to distinguish between the two is by questioning our experience. Is the threat real? How likely is it to happen? And how helpful is the thought?

I know my boss won’t eat me. So, what good are survival instincts in the workplace?

Work can be very stressful. Triggers include pressure, unclear demands, poor leadership and lack of support. Add to that overtime, job insecurity and little-to-no work-life balance, and no wonder we’re stressed. On the flip side, there are our coping skills to consider. Personality and genes play a part, but so does self-care. Chronic stress tells us something is wrong, and we should take that message seriously. Be it re-adjusting expectations at work or building a healthier lifestyle outside it. How about you? What’s your coping strategy?


Ah. OK, there’s nothing wrong with wine, but alcohol isn’t helpful here. We need to recover from negative stress and connect with things that make us feel good. It’s different for everyone, perhaps a hobby, sport or social group. Anything that helps us rebalance and re-energize.

Reluctantly understood. What about the modern-day workplace gets us so fraught?

The biggest issue of modern times is that we’re switched on 24/7 thanks to mobile devices and the Internet. We constantly check what’s coming in, and we’re expected to respond at lightning speed. That wasn’t always the case, and we’re not built for it. We need to switch off and reset, otherwise stress hormones get stuck in the body. Think about how athletes train; they take plenty of rest. Animals do the same. Just look at your dogs, are they stressed?

Our pets are happier than we are. How can unmanaged stress impact us?

Chronic negative stress can lead to all sorts of auto-immune diseases, allergies and heart problems. Then there’s brain damage — like poor concentration or memory loss — depression and death. Need I go on?

I’d rather you didn’t! Are all types of work equally stressful? Is my ayi as anxious as I am?

The type of work matters. Statistically speaking, high stress comes with jobs that require contact and emotional involvement like health care, social work and teaching. Then there are professions with tight time pressures and imposed deadlines, such as journalism — I’m sorry! As for your ayi, if there’s a sense of autonomy over her work and you’re a good employer, she’s likely less anxious than you are. But don’t forget, financial insecurity and family worries can be highly stressful.

I might ditch journalism and work in a donkey sanctuary.

You’d probably be less stressed. But like so many people, you enjoy your work and are good at it. We create most stress ourselves. A “perceived” threat is what we fear will happen or what we believe others think of us. There’s a lot of energy wasted on catastrophizing or “what if” mentality. We can literally think ourselves into being stressed.

If we think ourselves into stress, does that mean we can think ourselves out of it?

Absolutely! The key is to become aware of our thoughts. Then we can turn them around.

Any more good news?

Stress spices up your life! It’s what brought you to China, and it’s what’ll get this article in on time!

Work can be stressful. Here’s what helps:

1. Plan your day. I recommend using a paper diary or schedule.

2. Focus on one task at a time.

3. Take a short break every two hours.

4. Communicate at work, learn to say no when demands are too high.

5. Routinely switch off devices and mute notifications.

6. Have at least one full day of rest per week.

7. Friends and family are your support system. Cherish them.

8. Make healthy choices (you know what that means).

9. Move! Dance, run, walk, or try tai chi. Anything helps.

10. Laugh more. Really.

Reach Ans Hooft at

Here are some useful contacts for mental health resources in Shanghai:

• Alcoholics Anonymous



• Community Center Shanghai

Tel: 136 3631 7374


• Lifeline Shanghai

Tel: 400 821 1215


• Shanghai International Mental Health Association



• Shanghai Mental Health Center

Tel: 5433 9391



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