Smiley unhappy people

A new guide for university staff promotes yellow badges and tea parties as an antidote to work stress.

Ken McLaughlin

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Topics Politics

For the third time in my life the smiley badge has raised its head. At primary school, there was a craze for sticking yellow smiley face badges on to our clothes, probably in the mistaken belief that we looked cool. Reaching (very) late youth in the late 1980s, smiley badges reappeared with the acid house dance craze, being sported on baggy jeans, trousers and t-shirts (although, due to my age and self-awareness, I did not succumb). Now in early middle age it has resurfaced, this time as part of my university’s advice to help me cope with today’s ‘epidemic’ of personal and work stress.

According to Olga Gregson and Terry Looker, the authors of a new Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) guide to managing stress, smiling is a great way to combat the negative effects of stress – and they encourage staff to ‘carry a “Smiley” badge [and] glance at it occasionally to remind yourself to smile’ (1). Much of the ‘guidance’ in the pamphlet is of similar ilk, being so bland as to be patronising. At work, we are told that we should treat each other to biscuits, speciality teas and ice creams, and to form relaxation groups, while not forgetting to maintain a tidy workspace and keep the photocopier filled up with paper.

We are also warned to control our anger because ‘for every minute of anger, you lose 60 seconds of happiness’, and encouraged to arrange a weekly ‘family laughing session’ at home for family members to tell each other jokes and watch comedy videos (presumably while wearing our smiley badges).

These suggestions did indeed make me laugh, but not for long. This approach to managing stress may seem banal, but it could cause real problems.

According to the guide, stress is a residue of the ‘fight or flight’ response necessary for the survival of our early ancestors, which maximises the body’s readiness to respond to life-threatening incidents with split-second decisions and optimum efficiency. While modern societies may have reduced physical dangers, the guide argues that the psychological demands and threats we face are no less severe and ‘our interactions and relationships with family, friends, work colleagues and strangers have now become the “fangs of the sabre-tooth tiger”’ (2).

But the current concern with stress has more to do with social and political change, than it does the vestiges of our evolutionary past.

There seems to have been an expansion in the concept of stress. Almost any human sensation, emotion or behaviour is classified as a sign of stress, physical indicators ranging from breathlessness and rapid shallow breathing to feeling tired, sweaty, nauseous or suffering from flatulence. Mental and behavioural signs include overeating, undereating, lack of creativity, doing too many things at once, making mistakes and procrastination. Such wide-ranging definitions fit in with today’s therapeutic culture, where more and more behaviours and social issues are viewed as medical or quasi-medical problems requiring professional intervention.

It is assumed that we need professional help to be able to cope with the ‘stress’ of everyday interactions at work and at home. This fits in with an increasing tendency by politicians and the medical profession to intervene in people’s lives, and tell them how they should behave and relate to others.

Today the pariah is not the atheist or sinner, but the smoker, the obese person or the drinker, who fails to follow official advice for a healthy and balanced lifestyle. According to the guide, combating stress is a matter of individual responsibility, but this ‘responsibility’ sounds like a new regulatory code for behaviour that would make an old-style preacher blush. Apparently, it is our responsibility to ‘ensure we are “fit” by adopting a lifestyle where we get adequate sleep, sufficient rest and recuperation, take holidays, eat and drink wisely, take regular exercise and nurture our relationships and our faith’ (3). It is clear that the smiley badge we’re encouraged to wear has little in common with its hedonistic cousin from the late 1980s.

One factor in the growth of the issue of work stress has been the decline of trade union power, and the resulting repositioning of trade union policy. As David Wainwright and Michael Calnan note in their extensive investigation into the construction of the notion of ‘work stress’, trade unions have played a key part in representing work conflict as a medical problem (4).

As trade unions declined as political organisations capable of influencing government policy, they adopted more of a focus on health and safety issues. Workplace relations were reconceived through the concept of ‘stress’. For example, write David Wainwright and Michael Calnan, ‘oppressive management must become “bullying” or “harassment”, exploitation must become “excessive demands” or “unreasonable pressure”’. Political problems become translated into medical or psychological problems to which the solution is invariably a visit to the doctor or counsellor.

All the MMU guide offers in the way of collective action are relaxation groups or tea parties. If your pay rise is insufficient to improve the quality of your life, and the lack of disposable income causing you financial hardship, the answer is not to organise with your fellow workers to fight for improved pay but to ‘save 5p coins for an end of the month extra treat’ (5).

There is nothing to be gained and a lot to be lost by accepting this view of work stress. It encourages us to see social problems as medical ones and view our colleagues and intimates as hazardous to our health. It means the medical and political authorities telling us how we should behave and relate to others.

In fact, perhaps the call to wear smiley badges was one of the more benign aspects of the proposals. Now, where did I put mine?

Ken McLaughlin is a senior lecturer in social work at Manchester Metropolitan University. He writes here in a personal capacity.

(1) ‘MMU Guide To Managing Stress’, O Gregson and T Looker, Manchester Metropolitan University, 2004, p24

(2) ‘MMU Guide To Managing Stress’, O Gregson and T Looker, Manchester Metropolitan University, 2004, p5

(3) ‘MMU Guide To Managing Stress’, O Gregson and T Looker, Manchester Metropolitan University, 2004, p11

(4) ‘Work Stress: The making of a modern epidemic’, D Wainwright and M Calnan, Open University Press 2002

(5) ‘MMU Guide To Managing Stress’, O Gregson and T Looker, Manchester Metropolitan University, 2004, p11

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Topics Politics

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