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Politicians’ health suffer as election campaigns intensify

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THE tension is palpable. Ahead of the 2015 general elections, there is enormous pressure on political aspirants to meet all the targets of visiting almost all the nook and crannies of the country, ostensibly to woo Nigerians for their votes. 

      But all these are coming at a very deadly cost. Their health suffers. Sleep problems, headache and depression become the order of the day.

It is not just the politicians that are vulnerable. The work pressure, money worries or relationship troubles, most Nigerians experience these daily with dire consequences.

    Indeed, the health of political office holders is a matter of great interest to Nigerians after the passing away of a sitting president in 2010. President Umaru Yar’Adua’s reported death from an ill health that existed before he ran for office caused a political crisis.

    The presidential candidate of the Nigeria’s opposition party, the All Progressive Congress (APC), Gen. Muhammadu Buhari (rtf), was alleged to have collapsed during a political campaign due to ill health. The People’s Democratic Party (PDP)-led government also alleged that Buhari recently went to the United Kingdom (UK) to receive special medical attention.

    But the truth is that Buhari and President Goodluck Jonathan as well as other politicians and most Nigerians are ‘sick’ from stress.

    A public health physician, Prof. Akin Osibogun, told The Guardian: “Stress is significantly associated with virtually all the major areas of disease. Stress is seldom the root cause of disease, but rather interacts with our genetics and our state of our bodies in ways that accelerate disease.”

       Some of the better-known implications of stress that many Nigerians may have experienced include sleep deprivation, headache, anxiety and depression. But increasingly, researchers are uncovering more and more ways in which stress can harm the health.

     In fact, it is estimated that over 75 per cent of Nigerians report experiencing moderate to high levels of stress over the past month. 

      According to the latest survey by global workplace provider Regus, as many as 75 per cent of Nigerian workers are suffering from various forms of stress-related illness as the impact of economic volatility takes its toll on the country’s workforce. 

       Multinational workplace solutions provider Regus, added that businesses can help change this trend because as many as 84 per cent of Nigerian workers identified flexible working as critical to help ease work-related stress. 

    Several studies have shown that stress-related illness can worsen or cause a whole series of health conditions ranging from obesity to heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, depression, gastrointestinal problems and asthma.

     According to the survey published in 2013, some 30 per cent of Nigerian workers are actually losing sleep worrying about work. From the latest statistics, stress-related illnesses in Nigeria are way higher than the global average.

     In 2012, Regus research globally found that 48 per cent of respondents felt their stress levels had risen over the past year. That survey canvassed the opinions of more than 20,000 senior executives and business owners across 95 countries and found that in West Africa, stress is causing a worrying increase in absenteeism, which is as high as 60 per cent.

     Highly damaging to business productivity, it was found out that 22 per cent of respondents are worried about losing their job, while 29 per cent feel less confident about the sector they work in. Furthermore, 36 per cent of respondents reported that their family and friends have noticed they are stressed by work, while 56 per cent of those surveyed said that stress is damaging their co-worker’s personal relationships.

      Regus’ vice president for Africa, Joanne Bushell, said: “Difficult economic times in the West and an unprecedented rate of growth in emerging economies have put a strain on businesses and their employees. Workers are expected to do more with less and this has taken its toll to the point many are close to burnout.

    “It’s not surprising that work-related worries and the sleepless nights they cause, are taking their toll on employees’ personal lives. More importantly still, their health is at stake as stress is a known catalyst for a number of serious illnesses.”

       She added that proactive businesses that address stress in their workforce are likely to end up with a healthier workforce and reduced absenteeism. In Nigeria, however, the health and safety regulatory environment is very poor, with very little employee protection.

     According to Wikipedia, stress is one of the social determinants of health. The social determinants of health (SDOH) are the economic and social conditions – and their distribution among the population – that influence individual and group differences in health status. They are risk factors found in one’s living and working conditions (such as the distribution of income, wealth, influence, and power), rather than individual factors (such as behavioural risk factors or genetics) that influence the risk for a disease, or vulnerability to disease or injury.

      In 2003, the World Health Organization (WHO) Europe suggested that the social determinants of health included: social gradients (life expectancy is shorter and disease is more common further down the social ladder); stress (including stress in the workplace); early childhood development; social exclusion; unemployment; social support networks; addiction; availability of healthy food; and availability of healthy transportation / active travel.

The list of politicians that have died of chronic diseases is endless. In India, according to National Outlook, “George Fernandes, 78, underwent surgery in 2005 to remove fluid in the brain after being diagnosed with ventricular hypertrophy; suffers partial memory loss and disorientation. Sonia Gandhi, 61, was hospitalised end-2007 with an asthma attack. Priyaranjan Dasmunshi, 63, suffered a major heart attack in October 2008, his second; was put on, and taken off, life support systems; remains in critical condition. 

     “Ram Vilas Paswan, 62, had angioplasty in July 2005. Arjun Singh, 80, diagnosed in recent years with left ventricular failure, coronary artery disease, diabetes, diabetic nephropathy, gall bladder stones and chronic obstructive airways disease. Sushma Swaraj, 56, suffers from diabetes and hypertension. A.K. Antony, 68, suffered a temporary blackout while inspecting an NDA parade in May 2008. Attributed to over-work, lack of sleep and dehydration. Has diabetes.Sharad Pawar, 68, treated for cancer of the left cheek in ’99, recurred in 2004, was re-treated; has high blood pressure. M. Karunanidhi, 84, hospitalised in May 2008 for severe backache, and again in January 2009, forcing him to miss the Republic Day Parade. 

Being a leader may be less stressful than following

However, contrary to the common wisdom that people in positions of power are more stressed than the rest of us, a new study finds that those in higher-ranking roles wield more control and, thus, suffer less stress and anxiety.

      While the image of the stressed-out executive or the politician under pressure has been firmly planted in the Nigerian mind, research increasingly suggests that it is actually people lower down on the social scale- not those in leadership positions at the top- who suffer the worst health effects of stress.

    Now a new study of military officials and government staffers at a Harvard executive-training programme, published by TIME magazine confirms these findings, showing that as people climb the organizational rungs, their stress hormone levels and anxiety typically go down. 

“Being a leader, especially a high-ranking leader, is associated with lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol,” says study co-author Gary Sherman, a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, United States, noting that chronically high cortisol is a physiological indicator of stress.

     Indeed, while everyone needs some amount of cortisol to cope with short-term stress, having consistently high levels of the hormone has been linked to depression, obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke and other major causes of illness and death. The new study found that cortisol levels were 27 per cent higher, on average, in non-leaders compared with leaders.

    For the paper, two experiments were conducted. The first involved simply measuring cortisol and anxiety levels in 216 people, including government officials and military officers, and then comparing those levels to those in people recruited from the Boston area who did not hold managerial positions.

     The second study included 88 leaders and analyzed whether their sense of social control over their circumstances was linked to how stressed they felt. Previous research has found that even people in low-ranking positions don’t have overly high levels of stress as long as they have a perceived sense of control; but for those who donot have a sense of power, even being at the top won’t protect them from hazardous stress.

         Generally, life -and health- is better at the top

Heart health

According to a 2013 study published in Annals of Medical and Health Sciences Research, “the modest significant positive correlations between ‘level of stress’ and certain biological measures (pulse rate and blood cholesterol) is a significant finding, which underscores the well-known cardiovascular effects of psychosocial stress at work. 

   The study titled “Stress and minor psychiatric morbidity among Nigerian executives: Some socio-demographic and biological correlates” was conducted by doctors from Neuropsychiatric Hospital Aro, Abeokuta, Ogun State, and Department of Psychiatry, Ladoke Akintola Teaching Hospital (LAUTECH), Ogbomoso, Ogun State.

    They said the physiological response of autonomic arousal, which is beneficial for the flight or fight reaction during acute stress may become detrimental when one is exposed to chronic stress, increasing the likelihood of developing a cardiovascular disease. 

A recent systematic review and meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies demonstrated an average 50 per cent excess risk for coronary heart disease among employees with work stress and the reported role of stress in hypercholesterolemia both in humans and experimental animals. 

     The researchers concluded: “The associations found between the outcome measure that istwelve item General health questionnaire (GHQ-12) Likert Score, the pulse rate and blood cholesterol level in this study further underscores the validity of the GHQ-12 Likert Score as a measure of level of stress, albeit reduced sensitivity among the studied population.

    “The female, young and the unmarried executives were found to be more vulnerable to high level of stress in this study. This has implications for management and occupational mental health practices. These categories of senior workers (managers) need to be supported by their establishments and will benefit from regular stress management programs. The overall level of psychiatric morbidity of 14.2 per cent among this group of executives is not unexpected and falls within the range expected in a community survey of well individuals.

    “These findings further highlight the clinical relationship between physical and mental health and the need for occupational mental health programs in our business organizations for the entire workforce. We recommend that regular stress management workshops be organized for Nigerian executives and those in managerial positions, which may in turn promote their mental health and enhance productivity.”

According to the American Heart Association (AHA), stress can influence behaviors that have negative implications for heart health.

     Have you ever arrived home after a stressful day at work and reached for that bottle of wine? Many of us have. Last month, Medical News Today (MNT) reported on a study that found working long hours was associated with risky alcohol use, which the study researchers say is partly down to the belief that “alcohol use alleviates stress that is caused by work pressure and working conditions.”

  Should politicians have their mental health monitored?

    Psychologists who have tracked politicians’ careers now say their mental health should be monitored. Nobody really believes that members of the Executive arm of government are having mental health problems.

     But politicians do face high levels of responsibility and therefore stress. They send young people to war zones and determine the future finances of the country.

     Now senior lecturer in psychology at Salford University, United Kingdom, Dr Ashley Weinberg, suggests politicians should be regularly screened to test their psychological health and ensure “they are in the best position to make decisions in the national interest.”

     He said: “Decisions that mean people will lose their lives are very painful. They are bound to take a psychological toll, and it will be down to a politician’s coping strategies as to how they deal with it.” 

       In a new book edited by Weinberg, The Psychology of Politicians, he showcases 12 academics’ research in various democratic countries. Their studies track politicians from being selected as candidates to becoming leaders, look at the personality traits and values of elected members, and at how Members of Parliament (MPs) survive – and how they might thrive – in the job. One chapter looks at the impact of denial and avoidance in a foreign policy crisis, another examines politicians’ cognitive skills and their ability to adapt to social change; Weinberg’s own contribution asks whether the effects of psychological strain on politicians mean the job needs to carry a health warning.

How can you protect against stress-induced health problems?

Medical experts say the best way to reduce the risk of stress-related health implications is to tackle the stress itself.

    In order to do this, one first needs to recognize the symptoms of stress. According to Osibogun, though these vary in each individual, they commonly include difficulty sleeping, fatigue, overeating or undereating and feelings of depression, anger or irritability. “You may also be smoking or drinking more in an attempt to manage stress, and some people many even engage in drug abuse.”

      It has been shown that one of the best ways to tackle stress is to seek support from others, be it friends, family or religious organizations. 

Psychiatrists recommend they seek help from a qualified mental health provider if an individual feels they are unable to cope with stress, are having suicidal thoughts or has engaged in drug or alcohol use to try and manage stress.

   The Mayo Clinic explains that physical activity increases production of “feel-good” neurotransmitters in the brain, called endorphins. Exercise has also been associated with reduced symptoms of depression, as well as improved sleep quality.

     Mayo Clinic is a nonprofit medical practice and medical research group based in Rochester, Minnesota, United States.

     The AHA provides some other ways to help deal with stress:

*Positive self-talk: turn negative thoughts into positive ones. Instead of saying “I can’t do this,” say, “I’ll do the best I can.” Negative self-talk increases stress levels.

*Emergency stress stoppers: if you start to feel stressed, count to 10 before you talk, take a few deep breaths or go for a walk

*Finding pleasure: engaging in activities you enjoy is a great way to stave off stress. Take up a hobby, watch a movie or have a meal with friends

*Daily relaxation: engage in some relaxation techniques. Meditation, yoga and tai chi have all been shown to reduce stress levels.



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