A nose for trouble

border_terrier_faceMy dearest wish is that the next idea to be bludgeoned to death following a show trial in the court of public opinion will be that of stress management. But I won’t hold my breath. And yes I know that there are many people who have a torrid time dealing with stress, that some colleagues are dreadful to work with, that management styles and job functions can cause terrible anxiety and that some offices are stifling, windowless hellholes.

Still, I’m pretty hardcore about the industry that has grown up around stress. Go visit the website of some misery leech like Carole Spiers, one of the ubiquitous faces of workplace unhappiness and ‘Vice President of the International Stress Management Association’ to see just what sort of world this industry is trying to make you believe in. She wants you to think the office is a festering cesspit of human degradation. The language on her website says it all. Here you’ll find sections on bullying, anger, stress, trauma, conflict, harassment, pressure, rage.

Stress, bullying and harassment may be real and serious problems, but not to the degree that these people would have you believe. I’d go further and suggest that the more it is talked about and the more it is measured, the more stressed people claim to be. The stress management industry thrives according to an idea borrowed from quantum theory, the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle which states that the act of observation changes the nature of that which is observed. In other words, it is an industry that helps to create the thing on which it feeds.

You can judge how out of hand things have become with two surveys I came across a year or so ago. The first from Direct Line Pet Insurance claims that more than half of people believe they are so stressed that it is making their dogs stressed too. The second, from the British Psychological Society claims that the most stressed out workers in the UK are in fact librarians, who believe that stress means they are more likely than other professions to be absent from work and more likely to vent their frustration on their families when they get home.

The climate in which we are seriously expected to believe that dogs are vicariously stressed by their owners’ workloads and that librarians are so enraged by the stress of work that they beat their partners could only come about because we have got things very badly out of perspective.

Fortunately there are surveys which give a more balanced view of things. For example, a poll for health and safety consultants Croner for YouGov suggested that for three quarters of workers, domestic life is more stressful than anything they experience at work. Very enlightening but just one survey that didn’t make it on to the otherwise comprehensive reporting of such surveys on Carole Spiers’ website. Make of that what you like.

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