The Work-Stress Delusion

Adverse Stress as a phenomenon has become more recognised over the last few years not, I believe, due to any intelligent recognition that we are entering a period where this is a potential threat to our way of life; but sadly due to the fact that we are more focussed on the relationship between adverse stress and the workplace. It is alleged that in the UK, in 2002, 13.4 million working days were lost due to stress related illnesses. The scale of the problem has grown to such a degree that all of us are aware of someone, if it is not ourselves, who is suffering from an acute level of adverse stress. Not only are we aware but also we are now familiar with the effects that this illness has on the daily lives of everyone around us.

So the phenomenon cannot be ignored and the population will always look to governments for a solution. I believe that the easy focus of attention fell on the workplace because it was the clearest one to identify. Also, in my experience, if a manager is able to bring in a system to monitor stress then he is more likely to be well thought of than if that same manager takes some real action to eliminate it, as that action could prevent another from doing something. I know that this has been true of the Civil Service but within the commercial sector to directly address stress in such a way would not necessarily increase profits and so may be resisted. Thus you have a difference of approach within the commercial and public services. The public service having to do what government wants in its bid to be seen to be tackling the problem but the commercial sector only taking part in the same charade if it is able to gain publicity as a 'good employer' and increase its profit margin.

We spend probably some 10 hours a day, apart from weekends for some people, at work and getting to and from work. So a large part of our waking day is work related. Studies have also found that one of the big causes of stress at work is lack of control over ones own work. The same studies have also confirmed that the problem has less to do with the psychological characteristics of the individual than the organisation of the work itself. Again I point out that these organisational hurdles are easier to identify at work than in our life at home. They are also more focussed at work. However they really do exist outside of the work environment. I am not denying that there is stress within the work place. In fact some of the pressure is also due to extra time that is needed to address the additional rules and guidelines that have been brought in to apparently ensure that levels of stress are reduced within organisations. In my experience the time needed to examine any problems has to be absorbed into an already busy work schedule. In addition to this our day-to-day life has all sorts of other rules and regulations that affect us at home but naturally concern us at work. My HR colleagues would always underline that domestic problems should be left at home but practically everyone discusses some domestic difficulty with colleagues at work and these difficulties are also growing.

The list of situations that effect us can be - planning problems for your new extension; getting the required school for the children, and even ensuring that they get the correct food at school; countering the demands of our children as a result of successful consumer advertising; being bombarded by health groups, with differing opinions, on what to eat for the best and also struggling in the supermarket to understand the labelling and watching the clock to get to the next appointment…and so on… You reader will no doubt be able to add many more pages of these to my few lines.

However the point is, the scale of the pressures outside of work is greater than that at work. But because we are supposed to leave our domestic life at home, the concerns of our life in general also play on the mind at work. Not only that but when someone from your local doctors surgery is saying that an appointment for your sick daughter cannot be made, but you must take them along to the surgery. This may be as a result of trying to achieve some arbitrary government targets rather than any priority set by the doctor. However, the person who at the other end of the telephone who is having to implement this, feels probably just as guilty and lacking control as the parent at home. Here I am trying to illustrate that we are all part of the very machinery that is very gradually stressing us tighter and tighter; we are the very people who are spinning this web and trapping us.

By misplaced attention to stress at work the cause of this phenomenon is being ignored and the attention paid only to the symptom, but the illusion is that the problem is being dealt with. Why is this allowed to continue? Well my belief is that to deal with the cause of this malaise we need to look to the fundamental basis of our life and culture. We have to accept that if we are given greater control over decisions, within a framework, then we must accept that some decisions will be wrong. In these cases we must create a society that allows others to learn from those mistakes and not be pilloried for them. We must also accept that when we make a mistake that we are the ones that need to learn from them and not seek to blame someone else or gain some monetary advantage by stressing someone else to take the blame.

In these situations people who learn quickly will undoubtedly have a smoother path through life. Those who fail to learn as quickly will no doubt have a much rougher time. This is inevitable if we as a human race are to survive. This does mean that the weakest get no help at all, but that the help given to ease their suffering is given in a way that does not impede the majority of us. At present the majority are coping with so many constraints that the ability to provide for the weakest in society is becoming increasingly impossible. As part of a cultural change, within nature, we must also be more realistic in our own expectations, and accept that within nature the strongest survive. Eugenics may not be palatable to a lot of people but to ignore it means to work under the illusion that the human animal is more powerful than nature itself and perhaps we have become too detached from our natural and often more hostile environment. Our societies have now become so soft in the way that aspects of our life are organised and through using technology we have become detached from our natural existence to such a degree that we are blind to the effects that nature still has on our life.

The reports of natural 'disasters' killing people should not be a surprise as it is nature evolving as we cover more of the planet, and if greater natural events happened we could be made extinct while some of our so-called lesser creatures will survive. This soft attitude has got to a stage where even people who enjoy their food from a packet in the supermarket, become repulsed when they understand where in nature it came from. At one time I had a trainee with me who was quite upset when he saw where milk came from. He had never thought of it before and when he saw how close it was to the cow's annus he was most put out.

Along with giving people more responsibility for their actions this also means that at a higher society level they must also be accountable for them and the punishments that result. For those in the criminal fraternity who knowingly, persistently and with much contrivance seek to undermine our lives we must be prepared to punish them for the benefit of society in general and in my opinion, to punish means to treat harshly. In the natural world the outlaws in the pack are dealt with most severely. To the liberal minded in our societies this will be seen as uncivilised but I see it as a natural action to ensure that we survive within the natural world. For too long we have allowed the liberal minded do-gooders to get into positions of authority where they now impose their image of life onto all of us. However, as the mammal with the most 'advanced' brain we do have a responsibility to ensure that our stay on the planet is not at the expense of all others otherwise we will end our days on one glorious rubbish tip!

So put all this together and we can see that the problems that we have at work are rather small compared with everything else that is affecting us. We have to take responsibility for our actions and also take responsibility for the everyday risks in life. A mountaineer climbs mountains because they are there and also because the risk gives him a buzz. Put a chair lift in and the buzz is gone. However he knows that he risks death if he falls - let him have his risk - we must learn not to let the liberal minded prevent his enjoyment of his life or soften it to such a degree that it becomes a bore. We should accept that in the natural world there is always a balance of life and death, good and bad, joy and sadness. For a successful natural life all these should be in equilibrium , and excess in any one can cause stress and anxiety. The mountaineer balances all these when he enjoys the thrill of reaching the summit, the risk to achieve it and the risks still to come on the descent.

These risks must be put in the context of a structure within our society that is beneficial to our position within the natural order of things and as I have said before government has a major role in this as does the commercial sector. Recent long term studies have also shown that those societies with most stress are those undergoing most change - the UK is close to the top of the league for this. I also hold that a lot of this change is unnecessary, due to fashion or whim, and pays homage to the materialistic culture that we have developed.

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Material Copyright © 2009 Alan Harmer.
Last Updated November 2009