Category Archives: Events

The Glastonbury of Neuroscience

By Anjanette Harris, University of Edinburgh, @anjiefitch

I have been to many music festivals in my time, but last month I went to my first Neuroscience Festival. Every two years, the British Neuroscience Association holds the Festival of Neuroscience, which boasts a jam-packed program of research talks from experts across many disciplines within neuroscience, as well as workshops and discussion forums. It is quite simply the national celebration of neuroscience.

Last month, nestled amongst the canals of Birmingham, the International Conference Center provided the perfect backdrop for over 1500 scientists from around the world to get together, share their latest data, and enthuse one another. This year, The Physiological Society hosted a strand running through the festival called The Neurobiology of Stress as part of their annual theme Making Sense of Stress. One of the symposia, organised by Professor Megan Holmes, brought together researchers from around the world, including myself, to present our work on imaging the emotional brain.

What puts us at risk of depression?

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Dr Stella Chan, a lecturer in clinical psychology from the University of Edinburgh, kicked off with the staggering statistic that half of all cases of depression first occur in adolescence. Stella reminded us that adolescence is a tricky time in which teenagers struggle with intense emotions on the road to self-discovery. But why do some youngsters develop depression while others don’t?

To answer this question, Stella studies how young people perceive themselves and the world around them. One startling finding is that those at risk of depression find it harder to see joy in other people’s faces. Because Stella uses teenagers at risk of, but not yet suffering from, depression she is able to see if there are changes in perception that may flag up that a youngster is likely to develop depression. If Stella can untangle whether a negative self-opinion is the cause or consequence of depression, she may be able to develop mind-training techniques to prevent depression in those at risk.

Untangling cause and effect using mice

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Dr Marloes Henckens, a post-doctoral researcher from the Donders Institute at Radboud University, presented her work on the effects of stress on brain function. She uses both human and mouse subjects to help her distinguish between cause and effect. Marloes began by setting her work in context; she highlighted that the brain is a collection of networks and that brain disorders are probably caused by disorders of the connections between different networks.

With that in mind, Marloes showed that stressing humans or giving them stress hormones caused the connections that make up the fear network to become stronger. While this is useful for priming a person to tackle danger, it may lead to an anxiety disorder, such as post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in which suffers are haunted by intense unpleasant memories. Marloes takes pictures of the brains of mice with PTSD-like symptoms and has shown that reduced activity at the front of the brain (important for reducing unpleasant memories) is a consequence and not the cause of PTSD. It remains to be seen how connections between different networks are affected in mice with PTSD.

Hormonal influences on brain activity in rats
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The following speaker, Professor Craig Ferris of Northeastern University, is the pioneer of imaging rats’ brains while they are awake. Craig began with a whistle-stop tour of the groundbreaking technology that he and his team have developed. His special scanning technology allows researchers to monitor brain activity while the rats are responding to things. For example, Craig showed changes in brain activity in mother rats as their pups start to suckle. It comes as no surprise that the brain areas involved in reward and motivation are active with breast-feeding. In fact, in these rats, breast-feeding is more rewarding than cocaine!

Craig then presented images of brain activity involved in aggression. To observe this, he first took pictures of the brain of a male rat that was happily lying in the scanner with its girlfriend, and then introduced an unfamiliar male rat and observed the changes in the first rat’s brain. The abrupt change in brain activity that was seen in the male rat’s brain might be described as blind rage, as it is similar to that observed with the onset of a seizure. Craig’s ambition knows no bounds: he finished his talk with musing on whether he could fit a killer whale into his brain scanner!

The impact of stress on emotional memory in rats

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The final speaker was me, Dr Anjanette Harris. I’m a post-doctoral researcher from the laboratory of Megan Holmes at the University of Edinburgh. I want to understand how stress affects brain function. This is particularly tricky to study in humans, especially if we want to look at the effects of early life stress on the brain, so we use rats (read more on the importance of using rodents in psychiatric research in my previous blog post). The work that I presented uses the technology of Craig Ferris coupled with memory exercises for rats that we specialize in designing. We have shown that rats that experience stress in early life form stronger memories of unpleasant experiences. These rats also have stronger activity in brain areas involved in fear when recalling unpleasant experiences in adulthood. This mirrors what is found in humans and means that we may be able to test potential therapies for human memory disorders on rats, ensuring that the treatments target appropriate areas in the brain.

Practical Innovations in Life Science Education

By Nick Freestone, Kingston University

On 27- 28 April, The Physiological Society held a workshop under the auspices of the Education and Teaching Theme. The workshop was held at The Society’s HQ, Hodgkin Huxley House, and in somewhat of a departure for such an event, extended an invite to those unsung heroes of the Higher Education environment – technical support staff.  Thus, in the weeks leading up to the event, to encourage participation from this under-represented group (in The Physiological Society participation terms anyway) various inducements were proffered to our technical colleagues. Primary amongst these was the offer of an all-expenses paid trip to London contingent upon the submission of an abstract as a prelude to a poster presentation at the event itself. Who could refuse such a generous offer?

Equally heartening from the point of view of your cynical correspondent was the presence of a number of new faces to the physiological pedagogical arena. This served to greatly enliven the proceedings and ensured that the event wasn’t merely an echo chamber reverberating to the well-worn axioms of the usual suspects.

Happily the event kicked off with lunch, which served as a great prompt for punctuality. This was followed by Session 1 chaired with great aplomb by Sarah Hall (Cardiff University) where the audience was blown away by fantastic contributions from Iain Rowe (Robert Gordon University) on teaching pharmacokinetics, Viv Rolfe (University of the West of England) on Open Educational Resources, Michelle Sweeney (Newcastle University) on the use of LabTutor and our very own Derek Scott (Aberdeen) on developing a renal physiology practical for large groups – no urine required!.

This left the audience so energised that a refreshment break was necessary to recover. After this much-needed pause, Session 2 included contributions from Frances Macmillan (University of Bristol), on developing experimental design skills in first and second year students and Rachel Ashworth (Queen Mary University of London) on using technology to teach respiratory physiology from a clinical perspective.

Given so much food for thought it was an opportune time for the participants to form smaller discussion groups facilitated by the Education and Teaching Theme Leads and tireless organisers to discuss a variety of questions posed by The Physiological Society around the general question of “how can The Society help?”. Having set the world to rights in this format, and having provided The Physiological Society with an extensive to-do list, heroically noted down in real time by Chrissy Stokes, the formal part of the day was rounded off by a message from our sponsors, ADInstruments, who reported on upcoming initiatives involving their widely used educational wares. Rather more informal was a wine and poster session which melded seamlessly into a later gathering at a local hostelry.

Day 2 kicked off with a plenary lecture by Peter Alston of Liverpool University. While Peter is not a physiologist, his talk, “Technology-informed curriculum design” was received with rapt attention by an appreciative audience. At this stage of the proceedings, Professor Judy Harris (Bristol University) exerted her considerable crowd control skills and marshalled the next batch of contributions expertly and smoothly. These included talks from Dave Lewis (University of Leeds) on Open Educational Resources, Hannah Moir (Kingston University) who did a livestream of her lecture to us to her own students via an app called Periscope (Think about that for a while! Hannah lectured to us, whilst showing students that she was lecturing to us whilst giving us a demonstration of a technique to enhance student engagement. There’s too many layers there for me to unpack into a coherent story!), Louise Robinson (Derby University) and our very own Sheila Amici-Dargan on how online tools can be used to enhance the learning and teaching environment. Louise Robinson’s talk deserves a special mention here covering as it did a topic close to my own heart, lecturing using gamification techniques. This caused an appreciative hubbub from the assembled throng.

Now if you thought gamification was a bit outré in the august setting of The Physiological Society HQ then you would have been astonished by the contribution of Emma Hodson-Tole (Manchester Metropolitan University) who gave a talk on teaching physiology through the medium of interpretative dance!

I told you this was a different kind of conference. This presentation, in the batch of talks after refreshments, focussed on motor neurone disease and provided evidence on how learning can be facilitated across different groups using unconventional teaching techniques. Other talks in this section included my own (Kingston University) on Outreach and Public Engagement by the use of a “Lab in a Lorry”-initiative funded by HEFCE, and Dawn Davies (Bristol University) who talked about her work using patient simulators in public arenas such as shopping centres. This looked fantastic, if rather daunting fun!

Now I started off talking about how this wasn’t your usual run-of-the-mill academic event, with the old hands nodding sagely while trying not to fall asleep after lunch. No! This event included actual live students! These were Patrick Evans and Elodie Cox also of Bristol University (Judy’s enthusiasm for learning and teaching is obviously infectious). Their talk “Engaging the public with final year undergraduate projects” definitely proved one thing once and for all. Our students are a FANTASTIC resource, capable of giving much better talks than even the most seasoned academic. Suitably humbled and chastened by this demonstration of youthful excellence, the excited crowd networked over lunch whilst perusing some of the items of equipment one can put on the road in a “Lab in a Lorry”.

Feedback from the event was uniformly and overwhelmingly positive. Ideas are being gestated as we speak as a result of this inspirational event. Watch this space for more positive, energising educational stuff in the near future.

Perceptions of Stress

By Andy Powell, @DrAndyDPowell, Birmingham City University

Sleepless nights, sweaty palms, lack of appetite – the physiologist in me recognised the classic symptoms of the stress response. So why was I stressed? I have a loving family, a crazy border terrier who thinks he is still a puppy, and a job as university lecturer that I love.

First, a disclaimer. I recognise that the circumstances that left me displaying symptoms of stress were short term and had a definite resolution, but those circumstances and more importantly my reaction to them was an eye opener to what simple things can trigger a period of stress.

I was up at night tossing and turning thinking about “Fun and Brains,” a public outreach event I helped organise at British Neuroscience Association’s 2017 “Festival of Neuroscience”. The activities brought together art and neuroscience.  A performance artist explored the role of memories, participants built neurons, and speakers presented about how the brain works at all ages.

“Perception Playground” was the title of my activity. Participants of all ages explored how simple tasks can be affected by altering perception. They coloured in neurons and played table tennis with vision-altering prism glasses on. They saw first-hand why drunk-driving is a big no-no (drunk goggles + remote control car = absolute carnage).

My personal favourite was the headphones that create a small delay between the person’s speaking and hearing. It really affects your ability to speak! People were generally only able to get a few words into a sentence before ripping off their headphones. A common coping strategy was to shout, presumably to be heard through the headphones. I considered the activity a success when I had a bunch of kids shouting about how the brain works.

We did have one participant who was totally unaffected, which we put down to the fact that she was a regular user of Skype to call home. The regular breaks Skype introduces somehow conditioned her brain (I am sure there is a great research project in there somewhere).

I thought this would be right up my street. I am a STEM ambassador and I absolutely love sharing my passion for science. I mean, who in their right mind would go to the Big Bang Fair and stands for 6 hours, with their hands in gunge, explaining to school students who have fished an organ out of a simulated surgical patient, what those organs do (that would be me). What I love most is answering those completely out-of-left-field questions that only a child knows how to ask.

So why was this the most stressful thing I have ever done (even worse than my PhD viva)? I think the big difference here was that I was flying solo on the organisation of perception playground.  Remember my crazy border terrier? It’s like that moment as a puppy when he embarrasses you in the middle of a crowded town centre by peeing in an inappropriate place.

Perception playground was mine, but part of a larger whole – and nobody wants to let others down. So right from the beginning that internal pressure was different from previous experiences.  I would lie awake at night thinking: Have I booked the volunteers? Have I organised the activities correctly? What if the weather is bad (it was held outside)?

All the while the physiologist in me would be screaming – control your breathing, slow your mind – often to no avail.  Set-backs along the way didn’t help – the funding I applied for didn’t materialise.  Normally this is a not a problem. I have a thick skin from years of rejected grant applications and papers, but on top of the internal pressures it quickly became a screaming matter. Even the thought of writing my first blog post was a source of major stress. Who’d have thought that it would almost write itself?

So how did it go?

It went wonderfully. I would do it again in a heartbeat. It would however be remiss of me not to thank all of the volunteers who gave up their precious time and offered their valuable knowledge. Without them it would not have been possible.

Participants appeared to enjoy themselves and take away some nuggets of knowledge; a comment from one participant sums up why I do outreach – “Thank you for teaching me about my brain, I never considered what it does before”.  Hopefully that girl is now inspired to study neuroscience, and will present her PhD work at the 2029 “Festival of Neuroscience”.

What has it taught me?

I hope that I haven’t come across as trivialising the effects of stress. Yes, this was a stressful situation with a defined end.  However, I always thought that I was invulnerable to it and I never suspected that something that I love doing would be the trigger.  I now have a better understanding of just how crippling it can be, and how even small or much loved things can be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

 

 

 

 

 

The next generation of scientists grill policymakers

By Peter Aldiss, BHF-funded PhD student at the University of Nottingham, @Peter_Aldiss

Voice of the Future, an annual event organised by the Royal Society of Biology, gives young researchers like me the opportunity to ask the upper echelons of science policy the questions that matter most to us. Quizzing MPs on the future of British science in Westminster is not something I imagined having the opportunity to do. Despite the sceptic in me supposing it to be no more than a ‘tick-box exercise’, I kept an open mind.

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Chi Onwurah, Labour MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central and Shadow Minister for Industrial Strategy, Science and Innovation was first up. She spoke passionately about the North-South divide, the numerous inequalities in STEM, the importance of globalisation, and how investment in technology can drive growth.  She explained how things would differ under Labour, though with the party in its current state it will be a long time before they can realise their ambitions to transform anything, let alone STEM. In what turned out to be an afternoon of carefully scripted answers, Onwurah deserves a huge amount of credit for going off script on multiple occasions.

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A quick changeover and I was sat at the horseshoe ready to grill Sir Mark Walport, Government Chief Scientific Advisor.  The first question was about forensic science, which Sir Mark explained is hugely important to many areas and will continue to receive funding and support. In response to a question about how the research community can encourage publication of negative results, he clarified that there are two types of negative results: those that are negative due to poor study design and those that are negative when a study is methodologically sound. Did this really answer the question? I’m not convinced it did. As head of the new merger of Research Councils, I hope Sir Mark will address this issue in the future.

Hugely impressive throughout was Sir Mark’s ability to glance at his notes briefly then discuss every topic – genetic manipulation, space research, environment, inequalities in STEM – in vast detail. It’s no surprise that he is the Chief Scientific Advisor.

Jo Johnson, Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation was up to bat next. The first question was about the effect of Brexit and whether we will continue to be attractive to international students. He assured us that we should continue to collaborate and communicate with our colleagues in the EU, and that there are no plans to cap international student numbers. He said there are no plans to merge research and teaching funding, as ‘blue sky’ research is fundamental and will continue to be supported. I’m not entirely convinced it is supported currently. Apparently, the Conservative Party allocate more to STEM than they originally intended and Mr. Johnson said this shows how highly they value the area.

Questions on how the UK can improve commercialisation of research, increase patent numbers, support biotech spin-outs and address air pollution followed. It struck me that Mr. Johnson didn’t feel there were any real issues and spoke like someone who is not worried about the future. Everything is bright, Brexit is not a problem and the UK will always be strong and a leader in STEM. I’m not convinced, but of course he has to toe the party line.

Science and Technology Panel

The closing act was the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee, a cross-party group whose job it is to ensure government policy is based on solid evidence. They spoke about the importance of the Committee and the weight cross-party agreement can carry. They also discussed the policy positions behind artificial intelligence and space travel, specifically concern around the former and excitement around the latter.

The ‘post-truth’ world was brought up; despite an apparent disdain for experts scientists, they are apparently hugely respected and trusted by the public, much more so than politicians. On improving the number of women in STEM, the SNP’s Carol Monaghan made it clear no baby girl should ever be forced into pink or made to play with dolls, but should play with fun toys like Lego. Someone asked the members of the committee why they became MPs. One answer stuck with me: that Westminster is where you can effect change. “Order, order” was the cue to finish a very interesting afternoon.

All in all I enjoyed the experience tremendously. I certainly didn’t feel it was a ‘tick-box’ exercise, but did come away feeling it had been a recruitment drive. Speakers made numerous references to needing MPs with backgrounds in STEM, and encouraged us to consider a career in politics. I would like to think, as I’m sure all others in STEM would, that we can create change and influence government policy without becoming MPs. Hats-off to the Royal Society of Biology for a top event and to all who attended for making the event a success.

Bringing STEM into Parliament

By Simon Cork, Imperial College London, @simon_c_c

Two weeks ago, I, along with around 150 other scientists, engineers, and mathematicians descended onto Westminster for this year’s STEM for Britain event. This annual event is organised by the Science and Technology Select Committee and has been happening since 1997 (barring a small break following the death of the original organiser, Dr Eric Wharton, in 2007).

The event brings together some of the UK’s top researchers to present ground-breaking research to members of both the House of Commons and Lords, thereby raising the profile of both UK STEM research and early career researchers. Policy and lawmaker attendees get a glimpse into the breadth of research being undertaken at UK institutions. Early career researchers step outside of their bubbles, albeit for a few hours.

Every year, the event receives around 500 applicants, of which around 35% are invited to present. Perhaps most enticing to many early career researchers, are the three prizes awarded to presenters in each category (Engineering, Mathematics, Biological and Biomedical Sciences, Physics and Chemistry), to the sum of £1000, £2000 and £3000 for third, second, and first prize respectively. The first prize winners for each category are then put forward for the prestigious Westminster Prize (this year I’m happy to say won by the winner of the Biological and Biomedical sciences category, but alas not me…).

The event brings together some of the UK’s top researchers to present ground-breaking research to members of both the House of Commons and Lords

The most striking point that will come as little surprise to many of you is the sheer number of non-UK nationals represented at this event. This is of particular pertinence this year as the UK looks to invoke stronger border controls following its departure from the EU in 2019. The many non-UK nationals invited to attend this event show the strong contribution made by foreign nationals to the UK’s research output.

Presenting my research: using vagal nerve activity to better control appetite

I presented my research on a new technological approach to treating obesity. According to Public Health England, almost 63% of the UK population were overweight or obese in 2015. The annual cost to the NHS of treating obesity and its associated co-morbidities was £27bn. Bariatric surgery is currently the only effective treatment to sustain long-term weight loss, so the need for novel treatments is clear.

A therapy called vagal nerve stimulation (VNS) is gaining popularity. It involves electrically stimulating the vagus nerve to “trick” the brain into feeling full and therefore limiting food intake. The issue with current VNS therapies is their lack of physiological feedback. This means that since the nerve is continuously stimulated, its ability to control appetite reduces with time.

Bariatric surgery is currently the only effective treatment to sustain long-term weight loss, so the need for novel treatments is clear.

We developed a device that regulates nerve stimulation in response to food intake. After we eat, our gut normally releases hormones that say, “I am full.” This message is relayed to the vagal nerve and changes its electrical output. Our device measures this change in nerve activity and only signals when it hears the vagal nerve giving the ‘full’ signal.

The UK government is beginning to introduce policy, such as the sugar tax announced last year, to tackle the growing obesity problem in the UK. Most policy announcements encourage physical activity. Unfortunately, this doesn’t go far enough. Increasing evidence suggests that once a person becomes obese, changes in their physiology mean that the chances of maintaining a reduced body weight after dieting are slim (no pun intended). We need more policies aimed at preventing obesity in the first place, likely by targeting children.

It is important to remember that the majority of politicians are not scientists. Events such as STEM for Britain are important for bridging the gap between basic science and government policy. Long may it continue.

Researcher Futures: Weathering the storms of career change

By Sarah Blackford

‘Your career is your responsibility, but there is a lot of support available to you’, declared plenary speaker Liz Elvidge, as she kicked off the day with a run-through of her own career path. A former postdoc herself, Liz is head of the Postdoc Development Centre at Imperial College, London and also chairs the BBSRC postdoctoral researchers sub-group committee. Does she have any regrets about moving out of research herself? Definitely not, and, she adds, she doesn’t know of anyone else who has left and would rather be back in academia. Having said that, Liz offered advice for both “leavers” and “remainers”: If you want to stay, your best chance to secure a tenure-track position is to apply for research fellowships, which will help you to gain independence; if you prefer to leave, then start applying for jobs, expand your network and work on your CV. Drawing on her experience of assisting postdocs, Liz listed the key behaviours for successfully transitioning out of academia: put your research skills to good use; be bold; be clear about what’s important; be willing to take a risk and always ask for advice.

Held on ‘Doris Day’, when storms and gusts of wind made for challenging travel conditions, we were pleased that all our speakers had made it to London to take part in the first career workshop for mid/senior postdocs, co-organised by Chrissy Stokes of The Physiological Society and myself from the Society for Experimental Biology. The one-day programme aimed to provide a series of talks, advice and interactive sessions to help our 26 mid/senior postdoc delegates to help themselves. With little support available for this group, the workshop had filled up within a few days of advertising, demonstrating a real need for this kind of careers event.

My own session, “Researching your potential”, followed on after Liz, giving the participants the opportunity to work together to identify their personal attributes and strengths. Using skills and values self-assessments and other reflective tools, the interactive nature of the session aimed to enhance self-awareness and to link this to career choice. The primary aim of this short session was to highlight to more advanced postdocs the myriad of factors which influence their career decisions, including career stage, personal preferences and connections, as well as those further away from our control such as socio-economic and political factors and, of course, the magic of luck!

IMG_0676After lunch, during which there was plenty of chatting and swapping stories, Kate Murray (acting director, Goldsmiths University of London) gave the delegates a whistle-stop tour of LinkedIn, and its crucial role in expanding networks and researching  new roles and employers when searching for non-academic careers. Entitled, “The power of networking and communication”, Kate also provided really useful advice about how to build collaborative relationships: first, by asking questions; then moving on to asking for advice and assistance; and finally reaching the level of advocacy and alliance, when you may even end up working together – as in the case of Kate and myself J. With the inclusion of an exercise in which postdocs were asked to identify their own networks, this session received excellent feedback and set the scene for the final hour-long panel discussion with our panellist: Lewis Halsey (Senior lecturer, Roehampton University), Liz Rylott (Senior postdoctoral fellow, York University), Sai Pathmanathan (Freelance science education consultant) and Jack Leeming (Editor, Naturejobs).

Speaking on the subject of enhancing your skills towards your next career move, the top tip from the panel was to focus on what you enjoy doing and to maximise the little time you have as a postdoc on developing your career to suit you. Talking to people, expanding personal networks and getting advice was also high on the list, including making use of social media. For those seeking an academic position, Lewis and Liz recommended Google Scholar and Researchgate, with members of the audience pitching in to praise the merits of using Twitter hashtags to access conference tweets. Jack’s advice was to think about your personal brand and the image you’re portraying, so select your words carefully for any profile you produce. Finally, freelance entrepreneur, Sai, left the postdocs with a great personal ‘motto’: the more you look for stuff, the more stuff will find you!

Our networking reception at the end of the day was an extended affair due to the weather conditions, and a literal break down in the London transport system. However, despite these delays, we received 100% excellent/good feedback for the majority of the workshop, with some very useful comments on where we could improve for next time. All in all, it is safe to say the delegates were blown away by the day (but, luckily, not by storm Doris), so watch out for further career events of this nature, courtesy of the Physiological Society and Society for Experimental Biology.

Researcher Futures, a career workshop designed for mid/senior postdoctoral researchers, was held on 23rd February 2017 at Hodgkin Huxley House, London.

Let’s talk about stress

By Anastasia Stefanidou, Communications Officer, Biochemical Society

According to the UK Health and Safety Executive (HSE), in 2015/2016 stress accounted for 37% of all work-related ill health. It’s time for employers to support their staff and invest in giving people the techniques and guidance on how to cope with stressful situations.

To raise awareness of and encourage discussion around the issue, The Physiological Society held a “Under Pressure: Making sense of stress” panel discussion on Tuesday, 21 February 2017.

The Physiological Society is devoting all of 2017 to ‘Making Sense of Stress’ across all areas – events, outreach, education, policy, and communications – with the general aim of emphasizing the contribution, past and current, of physiology to our understanding of stress.

Geoff McDonald, leader of minds@work, chaired last week’s panel, which included Stafford Lightman, Director of the Henry Wellcome Laboratories for Integrative Neuroscience and Endocrinology at the University of Bristol and current President Elect of the British Neuroscience Association and Gail Kinman, Professor of Occupational Health Psychology and Director of the Research Centre for Applied Psychology at the University of Bedfordshire.

The mechanisms of stress

Hans Selye, known as “the father of stress,” noticed, as a medical student, that patients suffering from different diseases often exhibited identical signs and symptoms. They just “looked sick”. This observation may have been the first step in his recognition of the concept of stress.

Lightman opened the event presenting the mechanisms of stress. “Stress is perceived in the brain. You can’t have stress unless you perceive it. It’s something your body perceives as bad, and you need to adapt to it”, he said.

What happens to you when you’re stressed? When your brain perceives a stressor, it tells the inside of the adrenal gland to release adrenaline, and the outside to release glucocorticoids. This hormonal response is one way our body responds to stress.

Lightman also explained that we have evolved to respond to stress in a way that it is in our interest. In many situations, short term stress is good. For instance, stressful incidents increase our vigilance, activate our acute memory and increase heart rate, adrenaline and blood sugar.

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Physiological response to acute stress (credit: Stafford Lightman)

Prolonged stress, on the other hand, can cause all sorts of problems like depression, inability to feel pleasure in normally pleasurable activities (anhedonia), lack of sex drive, disrupted sleep, heart diseases, and metabolic syndromes like diabetes.

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Pathophysiological response to chronic stress (credit: Stafford Lightman)

In addition to these physiological mechanisms, your genes, your early life experiences, and your stresses as an adult greatly influence your susceptibility to stress.

The cost of work-related stress

Kinman then spoke about the costs of work-related stress and wellbeing in demanding professions.

The UK Health and Safety Executive (HSE) defines work-related stress as “the process that arises where work demands of various types and combinations exceed the person’s capacity and capability to cope.”

The statistics are alarming. The latest estimates from the Labour Force Survey (LFS) show that:

  • The UK lost 11.7 million working days due to this condition in 2015/16 (average of 23.9 days lost per case).
  • In 2015/16 stress accounted for 37% of all work-related ill health cases and 45% of all working days lost due to ill health.
  • Stress is more prevalent in public service industries, such as education; health and social care; and public administration and defence.
  • The main work factors cited by respondents as causing work-related stress, depression or anxiety (LFS) were workload pressures, including tight deadlines and too much responsibility and a lack of managerial support
  • Estimated financial burden is $221 million to $187 billion

What do we do now?

Everybody who needs help, has to be empowered to ask. It’s time to change our culture and help sufferers thrive in their workplace. Tackling work-related stress can bring benefit in many areas: reduced costs – of sick pay, sickness cover, overtime, and recruitment – and fewer days lost to sickness and absenteeism.

In January 2017, Prime Minister Theresa May announced a package of measures that aim to transform mental health support in the UK at each stage of a person’s life, including in workplaces, schools, and the community. This mental health reform is an opportunity to tackle the stigma associated with mental health.

Last week, #FuturePRoof published a report exploring the mental health of public relations professionals. The report included the following recommendations for employers:

  • Make mental health and wellbeing a management issue within your management team
  • Company policies and procedures should cover sickness due to mental health. Provide clear signposting and training to all employees and managers on policies and procedures
  • Where resources do not exist within an organization, access external support. Small organizations should consider retaining specialized support

Stress in the workplace is an epidemic. However, the normalisation of speaking up about mental health is slowly shifting attitudes and workplace culture. There’s no single solution but education and empathy go a long way in helping to tackle the issue. Make sure you help your co-workers by listening, being empathetic, and making sure they know they aren’t alone.

Geoff McDonald quoted Alexander den Heijer, who said, “When a flower doesn’t bloom, you fix the environment in which it grows, not the flower.” With some understanding of the physiology of stress under our belts, it’s now up to all of us to influence the government! Everyone, do your part!

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