The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation
Henry David Thoreau, 1817-1862
A few years ago I was minded to teach a course on the Design of Environments and of Work, which is all about how to make jobs and workplaces fit for human beings so as to maximize health, well-being, efficiency, effectiveness, and safety. Fascinating stuff, I thought but the students did not agree. I had forgotten that they are now "customers" and all consumers like goods to come attractively packaged. "Design of Environments and of Work" sounded so dull that eyes swiftly moved on to other options in the handbook. Then I considered the crux of the issue. So many workplaces are manifestly unsuited to human beings that what we are really talking about is how environmental and psychosocial stressors create strain, ill-health, accidents, and disasters. I changed the title of the course to "Work and Stress" and I had many more "takers" even though the content of the course remained exactly the same.
It is not surprising that the word "stress" provoked interest. Judging from Thoreau's famous comment, it has been around for a very long time. However, in recent years the amount of stress-related ill-health appears to be increasing to levels that have attracted the concern of governments and bodies such as the World Health Organization (WHO). For instance, the Labour Force Survey (Hodgson, Jones, Elliott, & Osman, 1993) found that after musculoskeletal disorders, stress and depression were most frequently cited as causes of work-related health problems. Moreover, Griffiths and Cox (1993) found evidence to suggest that stress may be a significant factor in the development and reporting of musculoskeletal disorders. Fredriksson et al. (1999), reporting a longitudinal study of 500 Swedish workers, found that overtime and high mental workload were among the predictors of disorders of the neck, shoulders, hands, and wrists 24 years later. The Labour Force Survey: Fifth Wave (Jones, Hodgson, et al., 1998) investigated the prevalence of work-related ill-health in the UK in 1995; 40,000 workers were asked if they had suffered any work-related illness in the past 12 months