Painting a picture of stress

Evidence suggests we are working fewer hours than ever. Over the past 150 years, lifetime working hours have reduced by about 40%. The average weekly work time has dropped by one-third. Adults now have more leisure time than at any time since the start of the industrial revolution. And average holiday time has increased more than three-fold from less than two weeks to about six.

But accepted wisdom suggests work is stressful. The cost of work-related stress was 13.5 million days off work per year at the last count. About one-third of NHS staff, for example, report work-related stress each year. Nurses working in the community report the highest incidence (41%) but more interestingly, the next highest incidence is found among art therapists (38%). Art therapy a high pressure occupation? Most people will scoff. Art is, after all, a preferred leisure activity. But here’s the problem: leisure time is often not good for health.

The great escape?

It seems the more leisurely the activity, the greater the potential for harm. While vigorous domestic chores seem a beneficial way to use disposable time, going on holiday is reported to be the most stressful leisure activity by 40% of British people. Combining art, a popular leisure activity, with a career, may be a potent recipe for work-related stress.

I have long held a theory that if you survey allotment keepers, they will tell you they worry “a lot” about them – unseasonal weather, rabbits, vine weevil, etc. My theory is that about one-third will report stress from their allotment work, putting them on a par with NHS staff. Evidence is emerging to support this with the outbreak of ‘allotment wars‘ adding credence to this untested but ground-breaking theory.

Spending more time in their paid occupation may not reduce allotment keepers’ stress, but taking up painting seems sure to make it worse.

Rising tide

Work-related stress doesn’t appear to have been a major problem in the 19th Century. I haven’t been able to find any references in medical literature, but there are exceptional cases -Van Gogh, an artist who painted plants and gardens?

The inexorable rise in incidence of work-related stress over the past 150 years is matched by an equally dramatic decrease in working hours, and increase in holidays and leisure time.

Last year, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) concluded that “the number of workers reporting that their job is highly stressful is no longer steadily decreasing”, and noted “the lack of impact to date of the [stress] Management Standards“. There is almost no evidence that implementing any of the HSE Stress Management Standards will improve health. In stark contrast, reducing working hours is strongly linked to a rise in work-related stress. Time for an HSE standard for longer working hours.

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