Previous generations may have dismissed it as a case of "swinging the lead" but stress-related illness has become an acknowledged and a feared feature of the Nineties workplace.
The price it exacts in terms of job absenteeism, disharmony in the office, strain on the health service and the increased levels of divorce is now such that employers and government officials have been forced to take it seriously.
Occupational therapists said yesterday that stress levels are being forced up by changing working patterns at a time when traditional family and community structures, which once provided advice and support, are breaking down. But the phenomenon of stress itself is nothing new. Professor Cary Cooper of the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology said: "If people think there was no stress in the 1920s and during the world wars then they are out of their minds. "The difference now is that it has become part of the vocabulary of modern life." Staff who in previous generations were prepared to come to work with any ailment short of a broken limb are now keenly aware of the dangers of heart attacks and nervous breakdowns. Companies are feeling the consequent cost in both absenteeism and in litigation. Professor Cooper carried out an economic study this year which found that stress is 10 times more costly to British business than strikes. We lose 30 million working days to stress every year at a cost of at least pounds 2bn. The legal costs are potentially even more debilitating. The landmark case last year of social worker John Walker, who won pounds 175,000 in damages from Northumberland County Council, started alarm bells ringing in government and industry. Walker suffered two nervous breakdowns after being exposed to a "health- endangering workload" and was dismissed by the council in February 1988 on the grounds of permanent ill health. The High Court ruled that an employer owes a duty to his employees not to cause them psychiatric damage by the volume or character of work they are required to perform. Peter Goodwin, chairman of the Association of Stress Management, said there were another 400 similar cases waiting to go before the courts. When Mr Goodwin founded his association 20 years ago, occupational stress was still almost unknown. "What has changed is that people now expect a higher quality of life, and doctors are prepared to give them a diagnosis for stress-related illness." The association has set up a series of 24-hour stress helplines for City staff and other high-pressure employees. Mr Goodwin said that the actions of workers like Nick Leeson, the rogue trader who complained to his Barings bosses about stress before losing the bank pounds 800m, had helped to make employers aware of the potential dangers. He said the highest stress levels were found in financial services, teaching, health, publishing and among the unemployed. …