Ann Baldwin – All stressed up and no place to go

A former council officer, Beverley Lancaster, has been awarded more than £67,000 compensation for stress at work. I hear young accountants and lawyers talking about leaving their careers before they are 40 because of the stress. Yet research suggests the professional classes suffer the least. Well, God help the others.

I believe that there are some key issues contributing to stress in the workplace. First, there appears to be a decline in interest in people as individuals in their own right. Whether subordinates, bosses or peers, they are often described in terms of their roles and inevitably their failings, but not their history, motivations or dreams.

The work, not the worker, is the focus of attention. Consequently there is little sympathy or understanding for the person. Beverley Lancaster had worked for the same council for over 20 years. Was nobody interested in why an able person had lost the plot after yet another promotion?

The professions I work with appear to favour a culture of individual contributions rather than team work. The armed forces know about the value of working in teams to create resilience to stress, as there is nothing more stressful than fighting wars. But most references to teams I see are about solving a problem or completing a task, not strengthening the ability to beat stress.

The response to fierce competition has been working longer hours. A newly-qualified lawyer, who worked through until 4am concluding a contract, told me he was still expected in the office at 8am that day. People’s lives have become unbalanced with less time devoted to cultural, spiritual, social, family, intellectual and physical activities.

If work is our only measure of ourselves, a bad day at work is a bad life. It’s vital to have support outside the workplace, but if we have less and less contact with our friends and family, who is there to help us?

Excess work leads to a poor diet, irregular meals and lack of exercise, so our resilience is further reduced. Chomping down chocolates and swigging alcohol in front of the television after a hard day is not the ideal way to combat stress.

I have been astonished by people’s willingness to put up with such conditions in times of skill shortages – in truth organisations will do whatever their people demand, providing enough of them demand at the same time.

I have concluded that if your job has become your life, it is so much harder to walk away, for there is nothing else for you to walk towards.

Related reading