Posts Tagged 'Stress'

The medicalisation of dissatisfaction

Unhappy

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

Picking over Michael’s Bones

CaroleSpiersMD

One of my least favourite people in the world is a woman you’ve almost certainly never heard of called Carole Spiers, stress  consultant, misery leech, media whore, ghoul. My problem with her is partly irrational because  – of course – I don’t know her apart from her public pronouncements and slightly disturbing manner, as defined by the equation:

(Patricia Hewitt x Margaret Thatcher) + Edwina Currie = Carole Spiers

Here she is, pushing some piece of crap that is supposed to measure stress levels.

But partly my distaste for her is rational because she is to me the public face of the burgeoning stress management industry. An industry that is largely reliant on giving people the idea that they suffer from the very thing it purports to cure.

In her latest attempts to link stress to just about everything, Carole Spiers has decided it’s a good idea to pick over the already well-gnawed bones of Michael Jackson. You can read what she thinks about it here.

 If you can’t be bothered, it’s a vacuous load of regurgitated drivel about his dissatisfaction with himself and his situation, terminating in this envelope-pushing paragraph of sentimental, misdirected, self-serving spew.

‘Perhaps the biggest irony was that the death of Michael Jackson, King of Pop, and object of admiration for many generations, could be seen as that of a disaffected employee, wanting to score points off a hostile management by slipping away and relishing the freedom of that enchanted world on the other side of the factory-gate.’

Health and Safety Gone Mad

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Tonight’s Panorama seems to be premised on a piece of bar-room wisdom; the one that tells us the world is going to hell in a handcart thanks to health and safety killjoys. Well, sometimes the bloke at the bar might have a point of sorts but maybe not for the reasons he thinks.

As we all know, the modern workplace is a death trap. Most of us are lucky to get home in one piece at the end of each day, regardless of the job we do. Of course, technically the most dangerous professions are those such as agriculture, forestry and construction. Proper, hardcore industries which employ proper, hardcore people, some of them working miles from the nearest outpost of civilisation, in the open air, doing what used to be considered the core functions of work, namely making things or destroying things or moving things from one place to another.

This kind of work is dangerous because it often involves operating machines and tools that use hammers, winches, tungsten blades, cables, scoops, belts, wheels, cogs, drills, explosives and spikes to chop, lift, skewer, smash, pierce, detonate, slice, chip and topple heavy, pointy otherwise inanimate objects such as trees, buildings, rocks and dead cows. Sometimes the people putting their arses on the line in this way do so while they’re up ladders, driving or stood on top of, next to or at the base of the heavy, pointy, suddenly moving objects.

Of course, you’d never believe this sort of stuff was all that dangerous compared to the work of us poor lambs who stare at computers all day. Not if you were just to read about the sheer number of risks that we apparently take when we sit down. No part of our body is now safe from the degradations of office work, not our hands, arms, backs, necks and legs; all of them at risk of moving too often or not enough or in the wrong direction. Our noses are assailed by smoke, perfume, solvents, poor air and positive ions. Our ears by ringtones and machines and other people’s yap. Our hearts, lungs and bodily fluids subjected to the most appalling risks.

Even our genitals are not safe. The Lancet once reported the case of a 50 year old Swedish scientist who had burned his penis with his laptop after working with it in an armchair for an hour without moving. The man claimed he was dressed at the time, but it’s fair to say that expert opinion on this matter veers towards the sceptical.

Then of course there’s the impact office work has on the inside of our heads. Recent figures show that stress is now the number one source of magazine articles in the world today. Regular readers who occasionally make it beyond the first two paragraphs of this column will know my views on this so I don’t feel the need to rehash them here.

Suffice to say that based on what you might read, nobody is actually doing any work in Britain nowadays, because, if they’re not at a physiotherapist, they are rendered completely unproductive by depression and murderous fantasies about their co-workers.

There are lots of reasons why we have arrived at this point but the most important one is to do with the way that marketing functions through the media in the UK. Companies with a product to sell need to build a business case for it and that means raising a concern with customers or possibly scaring the shit out of them either with a direct personal appeal to them or with the threat of harm and litigation.

This is a perfectly valid way of doing business of course, and I wouldn’t have a business without it, but it can lead to problems. One of them is the potential for some claims to confuse the hell out of people. For example a year or so back, I saw a survey by Travelodge that claimed that late-sleeping workers are causing the UK economy up to £619m in lost productivity, based on the finding that half of the UK’s workforce will arrive late to work on any given day – 20 per cent or six million, of whom would have overslept. At the same time an organisation calling itself Siesta Awareness launched Siesta Awareness Day on the 11 July, claiming that a ‘20 minute nap in the middle of a working day can increase productivity by over 30 per cent and alertness by 100 per cent as well as improve memory and concentration. Recent research shows that we can also reduce stress and the risk of heart disease by 34 per cent. Sleep deprivation has been shown to make weight loss more difficult as well as cause accidents at work and on the road.’ Draw your own conclusions.

As well as confusing claims, there is also the potential for workplace scare stories to throw up some dubious claims and some that are plain nonsense. I know it’s wrong to stereotype people, but the worst culprits for peddling new age tat are magazines aimed at predominantly female audiences such as PAs and secretaries. For example – and I won’t name the magazine involved – I recently read an article about RSI that claimed that the solution had nothing to do with medical advice, seating and training but was to use magnets, which apparently draw blood to the afflicted area of the arm by attracting the iron in the red corpuscles. You could argue about that, but really there is a one word response to it.

 

 

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

More stress nonsense

From my favourite stress management consultant. I hate to go on but the idea that you can measure stress levels by checking the temperature of your thumb? Of course, the real tragedy is that anybody believes it never mind pays money for it. Just to really rub our noses in it, Carole goes the extra yard by telling us on her website what those thumb temperatures really mean.

Below 79 Chronic tension
79-84 Nervous
84-90 Alert and Active
90-95 Calm
Above 95 Deeply relaxed

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.

Sliding doors

 

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Back in 1959 a pair of Californian cardiologists called Meyer Friedman and Ray Rosenman identified a series of personality traits which tend to go with each other and, they argued, disproportionate levels of heart disease. The traits include an overblown sense of time urgency, a desire to fit as much into each second as possible, excessive competitiveness and aggressiveness and a frustration when other people are too slow, when cars dawdle and when planes are late. Twenty-first century man in other words.

They coined a term for such people which has entered common usage. They called them Type-A personalities. And in Douglas Coupland’s 1995 novel Microserfs, one of the characters neatly encapsulates what Type-As are all about. ‘Type-A personalities have a whole subset of diseases that they, and only they, share,’ he claims. ‘The transmission vector for these diseases is the door close button on elevators that only gets pushed by impatient, Type-A people.’

Stephen Fry may have made the news recently for his fatalistic tweeting about his time trapped in a lift, but most are designed with Type A personalities in mind. The most sophisticated lifts are now able to predict human behaviour patterns based on the time of day and anticipate which floor they need to be on. And they go faster than ever before, some at more than 40 feet per second. They could go faster, but there would be a distinct possibility of severe ear pain from the changes in air pressure.

They are also designed to deal with human psychological needs. The lift close button is there to give Type A personalities something to do because waiting four seconds is just too much for them. The rumour is that many lifts have dummy buttons or that managers turn them off even if they do work. Research shows that people would like to wait a maximum of fifteen seconds for a lift to arrive and start to get visibly upset if they have to wait forty seconds. So designers include indicators that show a lift is on its way to give the impression of an immediate response. And if you’ve ever wondered why they have mirrors inside, the answer is partly to do with dealing with feelings of claustrophobia but also to give people one more thing to look at while they’re stuck in the damn lift.


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