Who wants a stress-free life?

spiked editor Mick Hume in The Times (London).

Mick Hume

Mick Hume
Columnist

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Those tempted to dodge work on a sunny Friday used to be branded skivers. Now they seem more likely to gain recognition as victims of workplace stress.

News that a government-backed campaign is aiming to relieve us of stress at work has caused my blood pressure to rise. Stress is what pays my mortgage. Unless this article is done by 5 o’clock, I will be in trouble with my editors. And a good thing, too. Like other lazy buggers, I live by the deadline, and work properly only under the creative pressure of the ticking clock or fretting boss.

Yet today being expected to get the job done can be interpreted as unreasonable pressure, chivvying phone calls from editors as bullying. The message of the stress industry is effectively that work is bad for us, and that we cannot be expected to cope with everyday struggles. An employer’s job is therefore to act as proxy parent, protecting our fragile feelings from harm.

That attitude now has government approval. This week the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) published a code setting six work stress tests for companies.

Employers are expected to demand less of employees, while giving them more support and control over their jobs. If sufficient employees feel that their employer has failed the stress tests, they can sue. For three of the tests, 65 per cent of staff have to give their employer the thumbs-up; the pass mark for the other three is 85 per cent. It should not be hard for any compensation lawyer to find a company where more than 15 per cent of workers feel that they are given too much work. These measures have been greeted as good news for millions of stressed workers. In fact the only winners in the stress wars seem likely to be the employment law firms and the therapists, for whom new career opportunities await.

It is generally accepted that we are suffering a dangerous epidemic of work stress. More than 13 million working days a year are now said to be lost to stress-related health problems, and stress has overtaken the common cold in the absenteeism charts. Yet the notion of a stress epidemic rests on two dubious assumptions.

The first is that the working experience is far more stressful these days. That makes little sense. One need not go back to the days when children were sent up chimneys and down mines to see that work in the past was far harder and more insecure. Yet history records no riots or strikes over workplace stress.

The second dubious assumption is that stress is an affliction from which we suffer. This is also a rather recent invention. According to the stress consultant and author Angela Patmore, in clinical terms stress is basically ‘a fight or flight response, designed to galvanise us into action’ in the face of some sort of threat. Now, however, ‘a term originally used to describe a survival mechanism has been turned into a ‘lurgie’, to promote an industry seeking to convince us that we have a dangerous psychological disease not suffered by our predecessors’.

It is not that work has become more stressful, or stress more damaging. What is new is the more defeatist way that work and its problems tend to be perceived.

In the past, for example, trade unions would organise collective protests over pay and working conditions. Now an army of experts, lawyers and union officials encourages employees to get depressed about problems at work as individual, psycho-medical factors of stress and bullying, to be met by legal claims for recognition and compensation. As the authors of an excellent study – Work Stress: the Making of a Modern Epidemic – put it, ‘work stress is the phenomenal form taken by antagonistic production relations in Western society at the current time’.

In response, there has been an explosion of workplace counselling schemes. Yet there is no evidence that this therapeutic approach does any more good than harm.

Typically, those promoting the new HSE code on workplace stress claim that it will ‘make for a successful business and a happier workforce’. But how will educating employees to see themselves as put-upon victims make them happier at work? Nor are they likely to become more productive, ticking their HSE stress test boxes while those in charge become nervous about putting anybody under pressure.

The depressing obsession with work stress is symptomatic of a culture that prefers to define the human condition by vulnerability rather than resilience. The ‘happiness’ that the stress industry seeks for us seems to be a sort of lobotomised existence in a disinfected bubble with soothing piped music. Some of us, however, would rather live in a state of creative stress than of gormless serenity. A stress-free life sounds like a living death.

This article is republished from The Times (London)

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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