We all know someone who has suffered anxiety and depression. It is the most common mental health problem in Britain today, accounting for 43% of work days lost. Stress is the usual trigger. Many more of us, though we have not been ill, have nevertheless felt the pressure of the lives we are living. So what is it that is making us so stressed?
Recession has meant that competition is fiercer than ever in the world of work. There is a sense that we need to work harder and more effectively than ever before, to get that essential edge. Businesses need to run faster just to stand still; the fear of falling behind competitors is all-pervasive. There is a constant need to find new, better ways of surviving, and the number of long-loved shops that are no longer on the high street is testament to the perils of not keeping up.
It’s the same in health, education and social services, where statistics show that work stress is most prevalent. Targets must be reached and league tables must be climbed. New initiatives are always being implemented, so workforces have to cope with constant change. All pupils and all schools must be outstanding; the NHS must be a 7-days-a-week service – and these heady ideals must be achieved despite resources being already stretched to breaking point.
Can-do leaders are admired; anyone who suggests that impossible targets are not achievable has the wrong attitude – in fact when junior doctors point this out, they are vilified as greedy.
There is also a misguided belief that we can cherry-pick ideas from other cultures, but without investing in them properly. We think we can achieve things faster if we take shortcuts.
The Chinese way of teaching maths is much admired. Surely we’ll be more competitive in the world if we take that on? But the cornerstone of the Chinese system is that the teacher does not move on until every child has fully understood. In Britain, however, teachers must get the class to a certain standard by a certain time. They can’t linger with those who can’t keep up, because boxes must be ticked and data analysis must reflect outstanding progress.
Many people’s working lives are blighted by pressure from above – from people who are under pressure themselves. Shortcomings must be pointed out and improvement must be urged. Years of diligent service might not seem relevant. There is no room for sentimentality and no time or appetite for support and encouragement. In this toxic environment, time pressure, tiredness and anxiety are compounded by emotional distress. Employees feel that nothing they do is good enough.
It makes sense that the causes of work stress most commonly cited are: ‘workload, lack of managerial support and organisational change.’
Since work takes up so much of people’s lives, everything fulfilling has to be squeezed in round the edges. We’re stressed, so we want to relax, keep fit and being creative – but with so little time, we need shortcuts.
Adult colouring books take us back to a time when the only challenge we faced was not going over the lines – and nobody worried if we did. They’re also a quick route to creativity – someone has done the drawing for us. I’m not knocking it – I love the excuse of having children round to return to the felt-tip habit of my childhood. There are some excellent books out there, some of which I helped produce. But ironically, the craze for this calming, mindful activity has led to publishers falling over themselves to rush books out in time to exploit the trend. Believe me when I say that behind every stress-busting colouring book is a publisher’s office full of nervous wrecks.
We want energy, so we drink coffee or eat sugar. We want to relax, so we have a drink. Sometimes, booze, stimulation and sugar are all offered in one hit – a vodka and Red Bull for the lady!
Parenting has also been hit by the get-there-quicker bug. We want children to be happy and compliant so that the time we spend with them feels like quality time – so we ply them with sugary shortcuts to pleasure. It’s amazing how often you see adults pressing cakes on children, rather than being pestered for them. What are we teaching them about the route to contentment?
There is also no time these days for potty training – why invest hours in the win-some-lose-some process of helping children to become dry and clean at night, when there are pull-up pants in the world?
We want to work harder, relax faster and enjoy ourselves in quick, accessible ways. In place of companionship – which takes too long – we choose constant connectivity, flooding our minds with communication and stimulation in every spare moment.
I have nothing against hard work, and I know that competition and challenge can enrich our lives. In my former life in the office, I was involved in applying the pressure to make deadlines myself. I love colouring in. I like alcohol and cake. I have been known to ply children with tasty things to make them happy. I’m on facebook and I have occasionally enjoyed tweeting and reading tweets about something I’m watching on TV. All of these things are fine in themselves and in moderation.
But I can’t help feeling that the way we are living, with all this crammed in and real relaxation abandoned, has created a perfect storm for stress. And the shortcuts to relieving it are not working. We need real change, and an end to the cult of competition and of doing everything faster. We need to take back control over our time.