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.