This week, researcher Bernard Casey of Warwick University created media interest with a presentation pointing out that days lost at work as a result of stress now exceed the days lost because of strikes at the height of industrial unrest in the 1970s.
Casey is not the first to notice this phenomenon. Longitudinal data from the British Household Panel Survey, using the General Health Questionnaire, show a sharp increase of self-reported stress over time.
Stress is an issue which creates a good deal of controversy. It is not easy to define: one author claims to have uncovered 650 different definitions. It is a mental state, but can have physical correlates and in extreme cases is associated with heart disease and other physical illnesses.
Media stories, blog comments and think-tank discussions have tended to blame increased stress on the faster pace of work and on poorly trained or ruthless management. The Anglo-Saxon long-hours work culture is excoriated while xenophiles have emphasised how much better things are ordered in our continental neighbours. However my own reading of international data suggests that stress levels are higher in France and Germany than in the UK – while US workers report much lower stress levels than Europeans.
It’s difficult to see just why people report much higher levels of stress than they did in the past. Working conditions are greatly improved – shorter hours, longer holidays, fewer accidents at work, fewer physical ailments amongst the workforce, employment legislation protecting workers from unscrupulous or insensitive employers.
Certainly when you consider the largely office-based occupations in central government, which report some of highest levels of stress, it is difficult to see why such jobs are intrinsically more stressful than, say, coal-mining, which occupied a substantial proportion of the workforce until a generation ago. It’s worth noting here that non-manual workers consistently report more stress than manual workers despite the latter having more dangerous, noisier and less well-paid work.
High levels of reported stress in a working environment have been seen in academic literature to be associated with job content, the pace of work, interpersonal work relations, working hours, lack of control over workload, organisational culture, communications, and limited personal development opportunities. Much has been made of the need for managers to adjust work practices to try to minimise stress.
But in practice those with responsibilities for large numbers of staff recognise that work-related stress is often difficult to disentangle at an individual level from stress related to personal relationships and circumstances. While most workers thrive in a particular environment, some will see it as threatening or too demanding.
One way of looking at stress at work is to see it as a conflict between emotions and the rationality of the work process. Changes in the work process lead to greater perceived stress, just as changes in personal relationships in private life are seen as stressful.
The big increase in reported stress in the public sector has been argued to be the result of a new managerial rationalism being applied to the work process, although I would say that changes in large parts of the public sector have been more superficial than has sometimes been claimed, and that some part of the apparent stress epidemic is down to the personal characteristics of those entering the expanded public sector in recent decades.
University staff report very high levels of stress, though anyone looking at this from outside the rarefied world of Academe might be forgiven for some scepticism. Certainly university life has changed in ways which many older staff don’t like, but it’s not clear to me just why this makes the job more stressful than driving a bus or working on a production line with insistent deadlines.
In looking at the increase in reported stress, I would focus more on changing cultural attitudes towards work, the medical profession’s unwillingness to challenge self-diagnosed stress in signing people off from work, and the compensation mindset which has seen stress as a justification for payouts under disability discrimination legislation (even though the DDA was not originally intended to cover stress).
Employers will rightly want to see if there are ways in which they can minimise stress consistent with getting the job done efficiently. No sensible boss wants to work people into the ground. But policy-makers and opinion-formers should be very wary of assuming that employers are solely to blame for the increase in reported stress. And certainly there is no justification in what we currently know about the phenomenon for further legislative intervention.