Have we got it wrong with stress?

A sea-change in attitude towards ‘stress’ is required if it is to be beaten, according to Dr Matthew Mills and Gordon MacKenzie. Their research has led them to conclude that that stress is not about demand and not being able to cope, it’s all about reward and meaning

What is stress?

In our view, stress is just another word for ‘lack of meaning or purpose’, and can result in a range of psychosocial illnesses ranging from anxiety to depression. It may seem contradictory, but the most stress in society as a whole is experienced by the opposite ends of the socio-economic spectrum: the poor/unemployed and blue collars workers on the one hand, and the independently wealthy on the other.

In the middle are the white collar and managerial social groups – those who are generally perceived to suffer the most stress because they are tied to mortgages, work deadlines and a host of responsibilities.

But when it comes to experiencing stress, or lack of meaning in their lives, they in fact suffer the least. The deadlines and long hours at work may still be felt, but their results are not as debilitating to health as being poor, or a blue-collar worker, or even affluent.

Of note for the workplace and life expectation – and campaigns that are aimed at keeping us trim and fit – is that according to research, the relationships people have with their work colleagues are 10 times better at predicting coronary heart disease than regular medical screening.

The relationship between an employee and their manager is the single biggest predictor of satisfaction, length of working life, age-work ability and productivity. According to the CIPD, the number one reason for employees leaving an employer is the (poor) relationship they have with their line managers.

No surprise, then, in the results of a 30 year study of absenteeism by The National Centre for Health Statistics, which found that work dissatisfaction was the single best predictor of absenteeism. The Department of Work & Pensions (DWP) estimates that between 70% and 80% of absenteeism is stress-related.

When blue-collar workers feel emotional pain it is because they feel they do not hold jobs that give meaning to their lives and because – adrift from management or tied to bad management – they feel out control.

Their self-esteem can be quite low, but not as low as the homeless, unemployed and very low skilled. Their experience of stress – lack of meaning in their lives – is by far the worst, while the rich are not that much behind blue collar workers.

Lacking important life experience markers (for example, work or business daily regimes and deadlines, and interacting with people they feel they can trust), the rich can literally ‘go to pot’ on the self abuse and dissatisfaction front, leading to the feelings of emptiness, sadness and lack of meaning experienced by their polar opposites.

When people feel like that, they turn to comfort eating, drinking and smoking. It is not by accident that certain foods (sugar and fat-based foods), alcohol and nicotine are chosen; each has an effect on mood and/or our elevated levels of stress hormones, to ‘make us feel better’.

Pitching ‘don’t eat this, don’t smoke that’ advertising at the unhappy will tend to fall on deaf ears. The body will still crave relief from the symptoms of stress – the advertising won’t make them go away.

The conclusions that we have drawn from research into stress and its causes are as follows:

  • The experience and cost of stress is growing exponentially. Little wonder: the gap between the rich and poor is getting wider, the number of wealthy people is increasing, some workplace practices have relegated employees to even lower caste cogs than they once were, and the instant removal of jobs at any time to offshore outsourcers is a threat that is felt by many

  • Stress increases the amount of state-assisted welfare that is claimed, along with our ability to fund and deliver it

  • Current interventions, such as health campaigns, are not working. True, smoking is decreasing in some social economic groups, but is increasing in women and is holding its own among the less well off. Alcohol consumption is rising, while obesity is still on the increase

  • Lower social status, not executive roles, is most likely to be associated with stress. But having too much of everything – a possibility made real by being rich – can also lead to stress, as described above

  • For the past 40 years in the workplace, poor management has been the most consistent predictor of stress among those who are managed.

However, there is much that can be done in the workplace, some of which may benefit the families and quality of life of the low paid and blue-collar worker. Benefits to employers can also be substantial, once the myth that stress is caused by excessive demands has been laid to rest.

Stress and health – displacement compensation

When stress – lack of meaning in one’s life – kicks in, we typically drown our sorrows by over-indulging in those things (food, alcohol, nicotine, drugs etc) that will make us feel better. Even if we manage to steer clear of them, we may well change our behaviour – becoming more aggressive or dysfunctional.

Stress is experienced when a need is not met. Imagine you are a biomechanical thermostat. When you experience hunger, you are actually receiving an error signal in the brain telling you that your blood sugar level is low and that you need to top up.

The same is true of our other needs. When we are unable to meet a need, we seek to fulfil it elsewhere by changing job or taking up an exciting activity outside work. Have you noticed how many of those with the most repetitive jobs lead very exciting social lives? Alternatively, if we cannot meet the need we compensate by displacing to a more easily met lower order need, such as eating high fat/high sugar foods, taking drugs or smoking.

These lower order needs are easier to satisfy but the effect is short-term, leading to more frequent habit forming behaviour designed to switch off the continuous error signal. Could this explain why, as a nation, we are getting fatter, less fit, and continue to struggle with the long-term effects of smoking, alcohol and drug abuse?

This hierarchy explains why stress is experienced. If a higher order is not met, stress is the result. Humans are innately driven to meet the needs, in ascending order; if a higher order need is not met, a descent to the base, physiological level can happen. This is at the level where food, drink etc are indulged in, in order to counter the unpleasant feelings associated with stress. Today, it seems that comfort bingeing is in, and a meaningful life is out.


  • If the work-life balance is skewed, stress will be experienced

  • Stress – more correctly called ‘strain’ – is something that happens to machines rather than humans

  • Stress is a term that encompasses a range of psychosocial illnesses, resulting from a failure to meet our higher order social needs

  • People become unhappy when their needs are not met

  • Unhappiness is not about demand and not being able to cope, it’s all about reward and meaning.

Dealing with the causes of stress: what employers can do

The manager can implement a programme that:

  • promotes self-esteem among employees

  • makes work more meaningful for them

  • connects employees with their goals

  • provides appropriate level of support and control

  • creates a positive climate, where individuals see how they make a difference.

The initiative is with business to make changes in the workplace that can make a real difference. For those outside work – the two ends of the socio-economic spectrum: from stay-at-home mothers and the unemployed/unemployable, to the very wealthy – the health risks for them will look the same unless a sea change in attitude takes place.

Dr Mills is head of research at Performance First and a research fellow at Birmingham University. Gordon MacKenzie is a founding director of Performance First and a fellow of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, and has an MBA from Warwick University.

Personnel Today’s One-Stop Guide to Managing Stress will be available at the end of February from www.personneltoday.com/resources

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