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It’s not work that’s stressful. It’s offices

All I need is a clear job description, mastery of my space, and the absence of a ‘team’ that is ‘on my side’

23 April 2016

9:00 AM

23 April 2016

9:00 AM

In the 1920s, the anthropologist Margaret Mead studied the people of New Guinea. She noticed that they hunted birds and squirrels but not flying squirrels. The tribesmen explained that they didn’t like flying squirrels: a thing should be either a bird or a squirrel. They wanted nothing to do with the dirty things. And while New Guineans of the 1920s were not leaders of scientific inquiry, Mead concluded that they were quite unstressed at work.

Bear with me, because I think the flying squirrel may just be the answer to the stress epidemic that is killing us. Apparently, we’re dying of work-related stress. The media, psychologists and union leaders say that stress could soon be as deadly as cancer and heart disease. The British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy calls it ‘the ticking timebomb under UK plc’. Last year the Independent claimed that a stressful work environment could take 33 years off your life. And anyone who worked at the Independent last year ought to know.

Work, they tell us, equals stress. The more we work, the greater the stress. It’s just the price of getting stuff done. The best we can do is mitigate it by talking to some paid gripe-sponge about how awful it all is (we can assume the psychotherapists don’t have too much work yet, since their association is soliciting for more), and try not to work so hard, whatever that means.

The counsellors and psychotherapists are wrong. Long hours at work do not naturally create stress. Tiredness, grumpiness, increased appetite and a need to moan in a pub, yes. But as long as we know what we’re doing and what the outcome is, most of us can work long, stress-free hours. I could graft in the garden, or build Airfix models, pretty much forever. I could go back to my first job of packing toy slime into containers for 12 hours at a time and feel content. From the Victorian foundling in a button factory to the hangman Albert Pierrepoint happily stringing up Nazi adjutants, all anyone has ever needed in their workplace is a clear job description, mastery of their own space and a lack of any emotional hindrance, such as a ‘team’ that is ‘on your side’.


It’s being in a ‘team’ that’s ruining us. It’s management. It’s performance reviews. Work stress, we are told, is destroying the NHS. My mother, who died of cancer rather than stress that’s as bad as cancer, was asked when leaving the oncology department for her final bed whether she would ‘recommend’ the ward, presumably to friends who were also dying of cancer and were shopping around for a grey room in which to contemplate eternity. Never mind that almost everyone who dies of cancer will die wherever the NHS can stuff them, whether or not it’s recommended on TripAdvisor, it’s a community and the team needs feedback. Now, I admired the nurses who looked after mother. I wouldn’t have minded a petty bureaucrat popping in with a clipboard full of stupid questions. But nurses with customer satisfaction questionnaires are the flying squirrels of healthcare. They are a paradox and paradoxes make everyone anxious and miserable.

My first proper job was at a corporate publisher, a workplace so mined with conundrums that just getting to 6 p.m. each day was like wading through Kafkaesque porridge. There was a motivational poster with meerkats on it telling us to ‘Look out for one another’: like all effective scripture its interpretation was left to us. Every document had to be printed for filing, and every document had an endnote telling us to consider the environment by not printing it.

There was an office kitchen with a kettle, but also a sign that using it might knock out the trip switch causing everyone to lose their unsaved work, which would be your fault. Similarly there was a fridge, but the office manager made it clear that someone had let stuff go rotten in there and spoiled it for everyone else. I wasn’t the someone; I think the someone had left and may even have died.

Yet their deed was like original sin; it stained us all. It was not our fault and yet it was all our fault. Where once there were priests and ten very clear commandments, now there was an office manager and a paradoxical kettle whose replacement was nobody’s job but everyone’s responsibility. These and a hundred other tiny, insoluble conflicts were like grit in our underpants that chafed every day. We were stressed.

If the emotional blackmail of being responsible for everyone else isn’t effective, someone will eventually draw up a rota. My wife is a community mental-health worker who is given responsibility for the office kitchen every Monday. Monday is also the day she’s on call to anyone within 30 miles who is contemplating suicide. The more time she spends out of the office saving lives on a Monday, the more apoplectic the email on Tuesday morning about the state of the kitchen. ‘Try and think about the people on your team,’ she was told after an afternoon spent holding down someone’s spurting artery. ‘This office only works if we all pitch in.’ She is never stressed about dealing with suicides, because that’s her job. She is stressed about the idiot who put exploding soup in the microwave, and the false idea of the workplace community that makes this idiocy her business. And the phone calls she misses while de-crumbing the team’s toaster.

Adam Smith made it very clear that a productive society is one where everyone does the thing they are best at, and only that thing. Victorian child labourers understood that. The tribespeople of New Guinea understood that. They did their one job, and their one job only, and then — for the lack of any team development meetings — went home to dinner, possibly a bird or a squirrel.

So the stress ends when we abandon this fuzzy collectivism. We are British. The flying squirrel is not indigenous to these shores. We don’t need to look out for one another, to pitch in or demonstrate synchronicity. We don’t need to have one another’s back. We need to bring back the cleaner, and the grumpy tea lady, the janitor, the photocopy-wallah and all the other drudges we used to have in the workplace in the 1950s and 1960s before post-imperial soul-searching rendered us incapable of telling minions to clean up our filth. Sod it, let’s have people who fan us during the summer months and bring us cocktails. There’s a stress epidemic, and these jobs — lovely, single-purpose, straightforward jobs — will leave us free to live long, productive lives.

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