Stressed bankers in London are being offered a new way to unwind - singing lessons.
Professionally trained singer Karin Hochapfel runs stress-busting classes for City highfliers that use a mixture of yoga, Alexander Technique and breathing exercises to relieve tension - all used by singers to warm up before they perform.
“I got the idea to construct the classes in a way so hardworking people can use it to energise themselves and get relaxed,” she said.
Hochapfel has run classes in London’s West End for the past year, but has just started in the bustling financial district of Canary Wharf, where she says people are noticeably uptight.
“These people are so stressed,” she says. “I was trying to distribute postcards about my classes and normally I don’t have difficulty getting in contact with people but it was so hard to get eye contact.”
Hochapfel said she sensed people’s fear, which she put down to anxiety about doing well in their jobs. “It’s the competition - you sense that.”
Thousands of suit-clad workers stream out of Canary Wharf underground station at rush hour on weekdays, hurrying to get to their high-rise offices where they put in long hours with few breaks but plenty of stress.
Hochapfel says the physical and mental processes involved in singing help alleviate tension as the whole body has to relax.
“All your ligaments are connected to the voice, so the way you hold even your wrists can affect how your voice sounds.”
Hochapfel, who trained in Cologne and New York, starts her class with breathing exercises. She asks people to imagine their bodies as a tube through which air flows.
“It’s an ancient way to unleash energy and relax and tone the body and mind.”
Then she gets the class to throw a ball to each other and the person holding the ball has to sing a phrase from a song.
At one session this produced: “The hills are alive with the sound of music,” “Ave Maria,” and “Sex and drugs and rock and roll.”
“It’s like melody dialogue which can be very funny and because it’s funny you forget about other things.”
Stress is responsible for 12.8 million lost working days a year in Britain, translating into almost 4 billion pounds ($7.61 billion) of lost revenue, according to Gabriella Goddard, an executive coach, who offers courses on how to deal with stress.
Goddard, who is currently working on an anti-stress programme at U.S. investment bank Lehman Brothers, said the symptoms of stress - such as a faster heart-rate and increased blood supply to the brain - once had a more positive function.
“It was great when we had to fight bears.”
But today people find it hard to de-stress and return the body to equilibrium, she said.
“We can forget how to switch off the on switch.”
Her sessions at Lehman Brothers highlight stress-relieving strategies including exercise, as well as adopting a different perspective on the work environment.
“I get people to be silent for five minutes and just look out of the window. That helps to calm people down and get the heart in equilibrium.”
Employers have become more aware of stress in terms of ill-health and also litigation. People can claim work-related stress under UK employment legislation under health and safety rules or as a breach of contract.
Increasing numbers of companies in the United States are offering employees massage and yoga onsite, not only to de-stress people but to encourage them to stay at that company rather than move to another.
Some places have come up with less conventional ways of getting people to unwind.
A bar in China lets customers punch staff and smash glasses to unleash pent-up anger, while in the Philippines, residents flock to a restaurant in Gerona where they can smash plates against a “wall of fury”.
Goddard says women are more pro-active than men in terms of wanting to tackle stress.
“Women want to know how to juggle their lives better.”
Hochapfel, who performs jazz and cabaret in London, also finds women more receptive to her anti-stress remedies.
She says men do come to her classes. “But it’s always less men than women - what a pity.”
Revision date: June 18, 2011
Last revised: by Jorge P. Ribeiro, MD