Jan Bruce, CEO and co-founder of meQuilibrium, was interviewed by Jessica Vaughn on JWT Intelligence
We talked with media entrepreneur Jan Bruce while researching one of our 10 Trends for 2013, The Super Stress Era. As our big and small stressors are multiplying, there’s also a growing awareness of stress’s serious effects on health and productivity. Bruce has identified stress as “the new fat,” and her current venture, meQuilibrium, is a digital coaching system for individuals and corporations to achieve measurable results in stress management and wellness. The system offers a next-generation blend of Web, video and mobile technologies to deliver personalized 360-degree lifestyle programs. We discussed the causes of the stress epidemic, the health effects of stress and what companies, governments and brands should be doing about it.
Do you think people are more stressed now than they were five years ago?
Five years ago we were facing an economic meltdown. We thought our banks were failing and our auto industry as well. That was a pretty stressful time, maybe unprecedented, especially as it followed after 9-11, food scares and major drug recalls. So if people aren’t more stressed five years later, that’s a good thing. But whether or not they’re more stressed, what’s key is that people are now significantly more aware that their stress levels are way too high and that this will diminish the quality and productivity of their lives, make them sick and affect their children.
What factors do you think have contributed to the stress epidemic we’re experiencing now?
Busy is the new normal. People are overcommitted, working longer and longer hours, and often asked to do more with less. We suffer from a prolonged unstable economy, less constancy in our careers, increased education costs and, for better or worse, instant gratification and distraction in the form of ubiquitous food, TV, video games and social media.
The nonstop pace of 24/7 communication, the rigorous demands of today’s business environment and the economic downturn have caused us all to tighten our belts, run a little faster and pull a little harder, and that makes our lives frenetic.
What are the impacts of stress on health?
Stress is the base of the iceberg for chronic diseases such as heart disease, hypertension and many gastrointestinal issues. It is now linked to cancer and to infertility. Stress makes us sick. Family practitioners report that two out of three patient visits are due to stress-related symptoms. The list of immediate discomforts is long: headaches, neck pain, fatigue, insomnia and gastrointestinal problems.
Over time, chronic stress contributes to serious conditions like high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes and obesity, and it has a negative impact on our immune systems. Stress not only makes it harder to function day to day, but it also makes it more difficult for you to create the very changes that would relieve stress. Stress can keep you trapped in bad behaviors, creating a damaging and vicious cycle. The more stressed you are, the worse you feel, and the worse you feel, the more stress takes hold.
Do you think stress is a global health concern?
Absolutely. The World Health Organization calls stress “the health epidemic of the 21st century.” I specifically set out to create a scalable solution for this reason, although the causes of stress will certainly vary across nations due to economic and societal realities.
Should companies be doing more to alleviate stress? What do you think those things should be?
Progressive companies do a lot to provide their employees with tools and programs to encourage healthy behaviors. But research shows that stress is the No. 1 impediment to positive behavior change. For example, the American Psychological Association reports that stressed people are 30 percent less likely to eat healthily, 25 percent less likely to exercise and 20 percent more likely to fail at weight loss programs. So if your workforce is stressed, even the most effective wellness program is doomed to fail. Companies should help their employees identify and address the root causes of their stress in a proactive and preventive manner. Fun, engaging, transparent programs that insinuate themselves into the corporate culture and change attitudes are the most efficient way to help. The good news about this is that stress is typically the No. 1 issue employees want help with. So for employers, stress management is a triple win, and frankly a no-brainer.
Should governments be doing more to alleviate stress?
New legislation around parity for mental health care is going to help a lot. I think our legislative branches should take a page from the physician handbook and first heal themselves: They could benefit from adhering to the core tenets of our stress management system, which are to address the conflicts that are causing stress, cut out the crisis-driven behavior, embrace a bit more optimism and finally connect with others to get things done.
What can brands and marketers do to help alleviate stress?
Two years ago, so many successful people I know thought stress was good. It helped them get things done. Now that’s changing, and rather quickly, compared with the time it took for awareness about global warming, the health issues associated with industrial food production and even sun damage. This is a trend line more like smartphone adoption than PC adoption. Marketers can jump on this with the power of their messaging. We have many great brands that we associate with relaxed, resilient, empowered and self-directed attributes. Let’s have more of that. Marketers can help people change their attitudes and then their behavior around stress by making it aspirational to recharge, to be collected and in control.
Do you see stress increasing or decreasing in the next five years? And if so, what would be driving that increase/decrease?
Stress is part of a normal productive life. And frankly, given the way we live, our economy, our 24/7 digital culture and the attendant obligations it places on the workforce and students…well, I don’t see the levels changing much. But the key is managing our response to it. We’ve vaccinated ourselves from diseases of epidemic proportion, we’ve stemmed the tide of AIDS, and we can manage stress so that it works for us rather than against us.
What do you think can be done to prevent stress from becoming an even greater global epidemic?
For my part, I’m working to give people the tools not just to assess their stress levels and areas of greatest concern, but to teach them how to change their thinking—which changes everything. Stress contributes to all manner of health problems, so changing the paradigm around stress will pave the way for much more.
Beyond stress, meQuilibrium creates proactive mental wellness. You need to get your head in the game. Resilience helps you cope with all the stuff life throws at you. All the studies show that stress is the underlying cause for so much of the lifestyle-related issues we suffer from and the No. 1 inhibitor for sticking with healthy behaviors. People who are stressed don’t stick to their diets, they overeat, they drink, they don’t sleep as well as less-stressed people, and they don’t work out. MeQ can help people do better in all these areas, and we are working with other companies in the fields of weight management, fitness, anti-aging and parenting to make their programs even more effective.