Work Stress: The Making of a Modern Epidemic

Work Stress: The Making of a Modern Epidemic

Work Stress: The Making of a Modern Epidemic

Work Stress: The Making of a Modern Epidemic


"This is a very comprehensive book on the subject matter with references that users can access and follow through. It is well structured and the writing style is appropriate for a wide range of students."

Mo Nowrung, University of East Anglia, UK

We are facing an epidemic of work stress. But why should problems at work which previously led to industrial disputes and political activity now be experienced as a cause of physical or mental illness? This book combines a critique of the scientific evidence relating to work stress, with an account of the social, historical and cultural changes that produced this phenomenon. The analysis is grounded in workers' accounts of their experiences of work stress, derived from the authors' qualitative research. Sociological theories of embodiment, emotions and medicalization are employed to explore the role of subjectivity in mediating the relationship between work and ill health.

This book concludes with an exploration of the consequences of adopting the passive identity of 'work stress victim', and the extent to which individuals resist the medicalization of their problems. It will be of interest to a range of students and researchers in the social sciences, particularly those with an interest in medical sociology, sociology of work, management studies and industrial relations.


Work stress is a contradictory category; meaningful to most people living and working in western industrial societies, but at the same time the subject of ambivalence and contested claims. For many (both lay people and researchers alike), work stress indicates the 'natural' limit of human endurance and resilience, a product of the unsustainable pressures and demands placed on the worker by late capitalism; while for others the phenomenon represents nothing more than claims making by disgruntled or feckless workers backed by woolly and imprecise science.

These viewpoints may be diametrically opposed, but there is a glimmer of truth in both of them. Work stress is 'real' for many people who face problems at work. It manifests itself in real physical and psychological symptoms. It can have real consequences including behavioural change, help-seeking behaviour including clinical consultation, or even early retirement on medical grounds. Some people might benefit from their 'condition' when negotiating with employers, or, more rarely, through compensation granted by the courts, but for the majority work stress is a burden which they endure without any prospect of personal gain.

On the other hand, it is difficult to sustain the claim that work stress is simply an unmediated physiological response to 'objective' conditions in the workplace, independent of subjective interpretations and sociocultural determinants. Is work really more demanding and pressurized than at any previous time in human history? Why was there no 'epidemic' of work stress, for instance, between the two world wars when many of those lucky enough to be in work faced incredible physical and mental hardship, uncertainty and insecurity? Why do problems and antagonisms which previously led to the picket line and the political demonstration now so often lead to the general practitioner or the counsellor? Work stress may be 'real'

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