The global engineer
E&T describes some new stress management technologies used by airlines and hotels.
If you want to relax, go on holiday. Conventional wisdom claims you're far more likely to put aside all those daily concerns if you pack your bag and rest your head on a different pillow. Away from home, all those worries about what you're going to put in your PowerPoint presentation, how to tell your colleague he's not pulling his weight, and whether you'll ride through the recession with a healthy bank balance somehow seem less pressing. Put geography between yourself and the burdens of your business life and those burdens shrink, becoming nothing more than irritating pinpricks on the horizon. At a distance, you need a telescope to spot them.
Hotels, being businesses themselves, are also struggling under the stresses of the current climate, however warm it is where they are. And they're discovering one way to attract more customers is to promote their stress-busting properties. Spas with Turkish steam rooms and Roman tepidaria are springing up all over the country and beyond, as if thousands of underground wells have suddenly been discovered and burst out through the rolling hills of the Home Counties. Any half-decent room you book into these days has a brochure sitting on the bedside table encouraging you to treat yourself to a Red Sea mud scrub or seaweed soak.
At least one hotel is taking its devotion to relaxation one step further, turning it into a science. At Carey's Manor, a lovely low-key hotel on the edge of the New Forest, you can book in for a Stress Management Day with an organisation calling itself the Stress Management Society, as if it were a charity for overworked single parents. But this is a business run by Neil Shah, who claims his 'positive mindset' has enabled him to run the London Marathon, climb Mount Everest and walk on fire, so coping with the everyday pressures of your job shouldn't be a challenge once you've spent a day with him.
My day with Neil mostly consisted of sitting in a large circle with other would-be relaxers doing breathing exercises. Not only would this help us cope with the pressures of our work, said Neil, but reduce our risk of getting cancer. All sorts of statistics were drawn upon to support these claims, but from where I was sitting, exhaling and inhaling to the rhythm of Neil's expanding and collapsing chest, the room resembled a chapel for believers in bad science. I fail to be convinced that sitting in a circle for a day is anything more than snake oil for my stress.
I feel the same about the Stress Mood cards the Society sells - business cards with a place you can put your thumb to test how wound up you really are. The blurb explains: 'When you're stressed, your fingers become cooler. That's because your blood is rushing to your muscles and heart to prepare you for 'fight or flight'. Relax, and your hands become warmer as blood flows freely once more. The stress square on the mood card registers the changes in temperature, and thus tells you how stressed you are.' But here's the really interesting bit: 'Stress mood cards are as accurate as a medical thermometer for testing stress.' In other words, a bit of cardboard containing your company details is as good as a proper piece of medical kit. I don't think so. But now any stress management technique, to be taken seriously, is presented as tried and tested technology even when it isn't.
Of course, technology can be recruited in the fight against stress and MP3 players are an ideal weapon. Wayne Rooney used the innovative Sound Asleep Pillow on his long flight to South Africa for the World Cup. The Sound Asleep looks just like a regular pillow, but contains an undetectable speaker. Users simply hook it up to an MP3 player and the sound is played through the pillow. Miraculously, as their head sinks into the hollow-fibre filling, they can hear their choice of tracks clearly, but fellow travellers can't hear a thing. As there was no official England World Cup song this year for the first time since 1966, we can only guess what Rooney was listening to. Perhaps, as he was flying at 30,000 feet, it was the Spice Girls' stirring 1998 anthem - 'How Does it Feel to be on Top of the World?'.
But as regular readers of this column will know, you don't have to travel to get away. In my continuing quest to see the world without going anywhere, last month I headed for Greece. Or rather, the Greek Beach on the Thames. South Bank's riverside walkway was transformed into a sandy beach, with sunbeds and parasols, live Bouzouki music and a beach bar serving retsina. Just a pity they didn't invest in the technologies previously mentioned in this column - a contrived environment inside a dome, so I could have also experienced the Greek weather.
For there's really nothing like getting away, or pretending to, to put all the cares of the work world behind you. And, despite my skepticism about the Stress Management course, I must say I was rather relaxed by the end of my time at Carey's Manor. I'd spent the evening in its very fine Thai spa...