STRESS! the Lunacy That Turns an Asset into an Illness

Daily Mail (London), July 7, 1999 | Go to article overview

STRESS! the Lunacy That Turns an Asset into an Illness


Byline: ANGELA PATMORE

CONCERN about 'stress' is sweeping across the workplace like a plague.

Now the burgeoning stress industry has received a massive boost through the [pounds sterling]67,000 damages won by Beverley Lancaster, a public official who was traumatised by meeting the public.

Stress has become one of the most fashionable ailments of the Nineties.

According to the Department of Health, an astonishing 80 million working days are lost each year through emotional difficulties at work, with up to 25 pc of the workforce affected by stress.

The British branch of the International Stress Management Association claims that stress costs the nation between [pounds sterling]3.7billion and [pounds sterling]11billion a year through sickness absence and health costs.

No area of the economy seems untouched. A recent survey of university lecturers - not always perceived as the most arduous of occupations - found that 65pc of them felt 'under considerable strain' and 71 pc 'would welcome a counselling service'.

To all of this, I respectfully say: 'Tosh.' My research over more than 25 years has made me realise that the current orthodoxy - heavily promoted by the stress management industry - is dangerously misguided.

Rather than helping staff to cope, it encourages a climate of helplessness and irresponsibility.

Instead of pretending that stress is a medical condition that can be alleviated only by management support and counselling, we should recognise that it is part of the human condition.

Far from being a disease, stress is a survival mechanism meant to galvanise people when they are faced with a challenge or threat.

I first became interested in the issue when I was writing a book about the psychology of professional sport, entitled Playing On Their Nerves.

Horrified Through numerous interviews with top competitors, I found that they talked, not about 'stress', but 'pressure', which they regarded as a vital tool for psyching themselves up.

Pressure, properly exploited, enhanced their performance.

As a result of my extensive studies, I was invited to review the research literature on stress with renowned scientists from the Centre for Environmental and Risk Management at the University of East Anglia.

What we discovered horrified us. Numerous reports which purported to show the growing incidence of stress as an occupational disease were riddled with serious flaws.

For example, there was never any agreed definition of the term. The word 'stress' has been used as a diagnostic blank cheque to mean almost any negative emotion, from severe depression to everyday worry.

Because the term was so flexible, the results of any study could easily be manipulated.

Conflicting Moreover, I was disturbed that much of the clinical research was funded by organisations with a vested interest in promoting the modern concept of stress, such as pharmaceutical companies and departments of psychology.

The absurdity of the current position is highlighted by the conflicting claims from so-called stress gurus. We are told that overwork causes stress.

But then so does underwork, or even unemployment.

Hans Selye, the scientist whose clinical studies of rats' brains played a key role in formulating modern notions about stress, put it succinctly: 'The only way to avoid stress is to die. …

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