We seem to be in the grip of a terrible stress epidemic. According to a new study by the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development, a professional body for managers in human resources, two fifths of all organisations stated that stress-related absence has increased. It even causes terrorism, apparently: the mother of Paris suicide bomber Ibrahim Abdeslam said she believes her son might have blown himself up because of stress.
The total number of cases of work-related stress, depression and anxiety in the past year was 440,000, according to the Health and Safety Executive, up from 428,000 cases two years earlier. So extensive is this plague that, in the HSE’s view, stress accounts for no less than a third of all work-related ill-health cases. In practice, that translates into the loss of 10 million working days last year.
The problem seems particularly acute in the public sector. A Guardian survey of staff in the public and voluntary sectors, carried out this June by the Guardian, revealed that ‘93 per cent of respondents say they are stressed either all, some or a lot of the time’. And a study by the NASUWT union in March this year found 83 per cent of teachers had reported workplace stress. The Public and Commercial Services Union has claimed two-thirds of civil servants have ‘suffered from ill health as result of stress at work’.
The spread of this epidemic has been accompanied by the creation of a vast stress-management industry, made up of counsellors, therapists, trainers, health workers and life coaches, many of whose activities are entirely unregulated. At the last count, there were some 15 million websites offering such services. Among the methods used supposedly to tackle stress are transcendental meditation, flotation tanks, breathing techniques, massage sessions, mindfulness teaching, Zumba classes, dough balls, and ‘mood cards’.
Some interventions are medical. NHS statistics show that last year, 53 million packs of antidepressants were dispensed. The use of heavy-duty drugs like mirtazapine, diazepam, venlafaxine and sertraline all increased, the last by a staggering 29 per cent.
The paradox is that the more our society dishes out the antidepressants and dough balls, the less able we seem to be at handling stress. This might be because the stress-management industry has a vested interest in keeping stress levels high. At any rate, it appears to worsen what it purports to solve.
But what is stress, really? The definition is so vague as to be almost meaningless. It now encompasses almost any heightened feeling, from weariness to alarm, from anger to nervousness. Based on the idea that the natural state is calmness, the concept of stress promotes the idea that any strong emotion must be physically or psychologically harmful.
This lack of definition has arisen because the scientist who invented the idea had a poor command of English. Hans Selye, an endocrinologist from Hungary, studied the reactions of rats’ bodies to demands placed upon them in his laboratory, and in 1936 he appropriated the term ‘stress’ from the world of physics. In that field, stress meant something very specific, referring to the magnitude of an external force which produces a proportional amount of deformation — or strain — in an elastic object. Selye should have spoken of ‘strain’. But the imprecision of his terminology, which gained widespread currency through his 1956 book The Stress of Life, opened the way to the stress hysteria that we see today. There is an old saying that to a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Today, in the world of therapy and Zumba classes, every emotion looks like stress.
Yet it defies history and common sense to pretend that workplace stress is increasing. Most of us enjoy shorter hours, better pay, longer holidays, greater security and higher living standards than Britons of the past. In place of manual labour and heavy industry, we tend to work in comfortable surroundings.
Far from helping anyone, the stress fad is profoundly dangerous. It creates a climate of resignation and fear in the workplace. The medicalisation of emotion encourages an attitude of ‘learned helplessness’, and encourages some to feel that work is actually damaging their health, when all research shows the opposite.
Falsely described as stress, intensity of feeling is a biological impulse that enables us to cope with the challenges that are unavoidable in work and life. It should be welcomed as a vital part of the human condition.