Posts Tagged 'Human resources'

The medicalisation of dissatisfaction


It’s an ugly phrase in some ways, but it is one that says it all. Not mine either, somebody from the Work Foundation used it when I was talking to him on the subject of stress.  

We have lost a great deal of perspective on how the world really works. We increasingly fall under the influence of consultants, certain professions, quacks, con men and snake oil salesmen who have a vested interest of one sort or another in medicalising how we feel.

The latest perfectly normal human emotion to be the subject of this medicalisation is bitterness.  The emotion roots itself in those moments when we discover (yet again) that sometimes life isn’t fair after all. We may not be pleased with that knowledge but we may as well get bitter about the fact that the grass is the wrong shade of green. There’s little or nothing we can do to change anything, except for our response.

This provokes an old fart response in me that I’m not entirely comfortable with. Surely you learn as a child and then throughout your life that bad things happen to good people (and vice versa)? Surely you learn that shit happens for no reason? And surely you learn that you can only be upset or angry for so long before those negative feelings start to turn in on you?

I know we like to think we’re worth it. Thanks L’Oreal. But life just isn’t fair a lot of the time. The idea that we need to treat people who may not accept that inconvenient truth is absurd.

Tomorrow: The Total Perspective Vortex

Nothing to hide, nothing to fear. Squawk


We are all under pretty much constant surveillance nowadays. But while we may worry (unless you’re a NTHNTF parrot obv.) about the most obvious manifestations of The Great Eye such as CCTV, we face a world that never stops finding new ways to get inside our heads.

Here’s a new one. According to a report in the Wall Street Journal, Google has come up with an algorithm to work out which of its employees feel most ill at ease and are most likely to quit. The firm has been crunching data from appraisals, pay histories and so on to come up with a mathematical formula which can identify those of its 20,000 employees who feel most unhappy at work and are likely to leave.

Balancing act

blackberrybustedI hate Blackberrys*. Even before the banks got us into the terrible mess we’re in, while firms banged on about work-life balance they were also kind of hoping we would all overlook the fact that the laptop and Blackberry they routinely gave us instantly eroded any distinction between the two we may once have enjoyed. Doubtless the work-life ideal will flap around like a dying fish on the banks of our stream of consciousness for a while yet but I hope it’s on its way out.

* Especially the way they force you to worry about how to form plurals. See also: mouses

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.

Stressed – the final word if not the last syllable

smiley1So 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.

October 2020

Desk Jockey