So what are we to make of the report from mental health charity Mind that workplace stress costs the UK 10 per cent of its annual gross domestic product? In the language of these things, that’s 12.8 million days lost and a total cost to the economy of £100 billion pounds.
Even by the standards of these surveys that’s an astonishing figure and I wouldn’t argue with anybody whose gut response is that the report is exactly the sort of deranged, attention-seeking PR nonsense you invariably end up with when you carry out research based on the self-interests of your organisation and those of the occupational stress consultants you use to carry out your research. I would never agree of course, but there may even be people whose reaction to the report’s findings that 58 per cent of people feel stressed at work is to make them wonder why the other 42 per cent of people seem to have it so cushy. Yet even these cynics would have to acknowledge that the report taps into a peculiarly contemporary feeling that work is not as enjoyable as it should be. The era of touchyfeely, New Labour, new Millennium self-absorption has not, as some would have you believe, vanished in a puff of harsh reality, but is manifest in a rather big way in our obsession with workplace stress.
And an obsession it is. Look up the word ‘stress’ on Amazon and you’ll get 23,000 results including titles such as ‘How to do More Work in Less Time’, ‘Beyond Anger’ and, thank God, ‘Stress in the Workplace and How to Cause it’. This is very much a recent phenomenon and cannot be explained away solely by referring to the most commonly cited causes such as long working hours, time poverty, undue workloads and bullying bosses. Those are all issues that we have had to face for a long time, and work in the recent past was characterised by a common acceptance that it wasn’t really supposed to be fun anyway – it was a job and probably not the job you dreamed about doing when you were twelve. (The twelve year old Mark Eltringham’s James Herriott inspired dreams of becoming a vet lie crushed beneath the pointy heel of a long career writing and talking about offices.)
My own pet theory about how and when we started to obsess about stress – and please feel free to rubbish it – is based on a borrowing of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle from the field of quantum mechanics. Excuse me as I disappear up myself but the principle states that: ‘the act of observation changes the object being observed.’ In terms of stress, this means that the more you ask people whether they feel stressed and the more you talk about it, the more stressed they claim they are. Most importantly, what we used to call ‘pressure’ seems to be all too often redefined now as ‘stress’, which does us all a disservice, not least those people who are genuinely stressed and have no control over their situation. There are even precedents for the notion of the active observer in the field of management theory, notably as a result of the famous Hawthorne Experiments of the early 20th Century which demonstrated that managers could increase productivity merely by carrying out a survey into lighting conditions. The people in the experiment became more productive just because somebody was paying them attention.
Now, let me crawl back out of Pseud’s Corner and support this idea in more prosaic terms. I’ve always found it telling that the Health and Safety Executive defines stress as ‘the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressure or other types of demand placed on them’, because it mentions our reaction to the causes of stress whereas most of the theorising about the subject in books, surveys and articles focuses almost solely on the causes. (Accordingly the publicity for the Mind report mentioned earlier is rather heavier on the duties of employers than the responsibilities of employees, although to be fair to Mind the report itself also draws attention to the subjective response of the individual to pressure.)
In his book Faster, the author James Gleick illustrates the importance of the individual with his description of two well-recognised personality types. Type A people are those who jab the call button while waiting for the lift even though they know it will not arrive any sooner. They have a chronic sense of time urgency, are hard-driven, statusconscious and ambitious. As a result Type A personalities are far more likely to suffer from stress and are two or three times more likely to suffer from angina, heart attacks and sudden death than easy-going Type Bs, regardless of other contributory factors such as smoking. Undoubtedly some (maybe many) people do suffer from undue pressure at work and it causes them problems, often very serious ones. However we run the risk of this issue running away with us by categorising too many people as ‘stressed’ and by allowing them to self-diagnose with the tacit support of GPs.
One of the more insidious outcomes is the attempt by management to deal with the chimera of stress. For a start some measures are welcome but may be entirely unproductive if employees are stressed because of external pressures at home or if they are failing to address their own reactions to what may be normal work pressures. Some measures are inherently wrong; if management has ever come up with something more likely to crush the human spirit than enforced, corporate-endorsed jollity, I have yet to hear of it. More enlightened management may be welcome in dealing with genuine cases of stress but the real message of this survey appears to me to be that we have let the issue get out of hand. Maybe opinion will swing back to a more reasonable position when we realise that, however boring or annoying our colleagues, however dull or pressurised our job, however badly lit and uncomfortable our workplace, however big a git our boss, for most of us work is better and less stressful than its alternative.