is stressful. And stress is pretty relative. Just ask MP Michael Portillo;
currently recovering from seven days as a single mum, looking after four
children on just over £70 a week in Liverpool.
pressure to act, imposed by our character or circumstance, we wouldn’t. We
would just sit. And sit. Perhaps we would occasionally shift to a more
comfortable position, but only due to atmospheric pressure causing pain in our
backs, or backsides.
yet, stress can debilitate. Too much stress, and the body and mind tend to
become strained, deformed, or shrunk. It becomes, as Portillo said of his
experience, "just horrible".
excess of stress is bad news. Our ability to make decisions is impaired. We may
avoid difficult situations or leap aggressively into foolish fights. More than
half a million Britons are seriously damaged by stress each year. Its symptoms
can leave us overwhelmed, irritable, depressed, or simply ineffective, and that
kind of stress is expensive. This week, Personnel Today estimates it costs UK
organisations around £1.24bn a year in lost productivity, while the HSE puts
the figure closer to £3.7bn.
is not new. The Roman colosseum provides vivid examples. Lions, tigers and
bears were trained against their natures to kill people. This was accomplished
by feeding them human flesh, treating them mean to keep them aggressive, and
starving them. Even then, many animals faced by 50,000 screaming people simply
ran away and cowered in corners. The stress of being mistreated and then
terrified was too much for their brains, which simply shut down.
was pretty savage stuff, and it was also illogical. It reduced what the animals
could contribute rather than enhancing their natural attributes. It
misunderstood the impact of over-stressing.
only good news was that the beast’s master usually paid the ultimate penalty
for his failure. In our modern world, senior managers are rarely the first to
pay for savage, over-competitive, under-supportive cultures. The price is paid
first by the people who are expected to perform when their egos are deflated,
by rules that prevent them doing a good job, and by feedback that is either
ill-judged or absent.
word ‘stress’ comes from the Old French word ‘estrece’. It means narrowness or
oppression, and it is only when the options are too narrow, or the work
oppressive, that stress becomes a problem. When we have no hope; when we have
been abandoned by the organisation that should have been our protector; when we
cannot see any positive outcome; and when there is no future worth working for.
David Kelly’s death should remind us that, sometimes, stress can be a matter of
life and death.
Max Mckeown, Consultant and author of Unshrink the People