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David Porter » Articles at Suite 101 » Stress Could Be the Next Key Factor in British Politics

Stress Could Be the Next Key Factor in British Politics

Work patterns changed beyond recognition in a decade, occupational stress the norm, few benefit from technology’s ease: can Britain ever take it easy again? This article first published on Suite 101, 8 November 2011.

With the pressure of few shopping days till Christmas, financial worries and frantic lifestyles of expectation, social-media and the ‘now’, all ages feel under stress. In-Deed, an online conveyancing company published a November 2011 survey saying that selling or buying a house ages people by two years. They didn’t find how much stress people suffer who can’t sell their homes.

How much is healthy, creative stress and how much is destructive? More of the latter has far-reaching consequences for our legislation, legal/educational/welfare/employment/transport systems. In short, for our whole way of life.

Most employed accept some occupational stress. When a social worker’s stress is classified as ‘industrial injury’, there’s a view that pressure on caring professions may be greater than others. Or that it wasn’t recognised before.

The Prime Minister or cabinet colleagues taking a break causes criticism, as if they have abandoned their macho-credentials by having a holiday. Others think they are better at their jobs if they take regular rests. Will Britain be better for a seasonal respite from politics?

Clearly, the 24-hour world doesn’t slow, issues don’t stop piling, cries for government ‘to do something’ don’t diminish. But all things in perspective is the way to better government at home and abroad.

Pay Not Necessarily the Issue

There was widespread amazement (early November 2011) that Lloyds Banking Group chief executive Antonio Horta-Osario was taking time off, suffering ‘extreme fatigue’. People thought an £8 million salary package and only eight months into the job would mitigate his stress.

When incoming chief of Ofsted, the government’s education watchdog, Sir Michael Wilshaw, announced that teachers should be allowed sabbaticals to ‘return to the classroom refreshed’, many people outside education assumed that 13 weeks annual holiday, reasonable salary and pension would be refreshment enough.

Eyebrows were raised when Robin Henry wrote in the Sunday Times (Nov 2011) that stress was ‘soaring among young City workers’. Medics expect to diagnose burnout in midlife, now ‘twentysomethings, the cream, of the crop in top-paid jobs’ find stress levels ‘wrecking their lives’.

Salary aside, stress is a problematic issue of our times. Anhedonia is the condition that prevents, according to Henry, ‘sufferers deriving any pleasure from their lives’. Insomnia, drug abuse, anxiety and depression are increasing.

Robert Colvile highlighted the growing problem of British stress in the Daily Telegraph (November 2011), asking ‘how much more can we take?’ He showed that more than half state-sector teachers take an annual average 9 days sick: ‘they can’t all be faking it’. It was a problem he felt can’t be ‘brushed under the carpet’.

The Climate

Colvile and others cited the ‘excuse’ of the economic climate. Banking isn’t the only sector suffering uncertainties, cutbacks, media hostility and stressed staff. The Eurozone crisis, the general global economic outlook, shortage of resources, price pressures and constant demands from a data/social media/instant culture affect everybody.

Psychology Today defines stress as: ‘reaction to a stimulus that disturbs our physical or mental equilibrium’. They say it’s an omnipresent part of life. A stressful event can trigger the ‘fight-or-flight’ response, causing hormones like adrenalin and cortisol to surge through the body. ‘A little bit of stress is exciting—it keeps us active and alert. But chronic stress can have detrimental effects on health’.

Individual and family financial stress is also increasing, further affecting health. Worries about rising winter energy bills, paying mortgages/rent and job/pension insecurities increase drinking, smoking, overeating and encourage unhealthy ‘coping’ activities.

With less money, people cut corners on personal care, healthy food and quality personal/family time and may borrow beyond their means. Anxiety and sleep loss exacerbates poor cognitive abilities and immune functioning, so stress is part of a truly vicious circle. This in turn leads to more public money needed for symptom treatment.

Policy Issues

Therefore, stress is not only an economic or behavioural indicator, it’s political. More people are depressed during the darker days of winter, (Seasonal Affected Disorder), and the mood of the nation is not only an opinion poll influencing elections, but a pointer for government priorities.

The quantity of assessing/testing children and teenagers (school and national tests, exams and regular target-driven monitoring) sets some off with stress and anxiety. For most, the joys of learning for learning sake without justification by assessment, are a historical quirk.

Searching for work in a shrinking economy where employers demand the sort of experience young people neither have nor can acquire without a job, is also stressful. The classification of thousands of young people into ‘NEETS’ (not in education, employment or training) is damning and glib, if technically accurate.

When business leaders and politicians show signs of stress-influenced behaviour and extreme emotional and physical fatigue, what can be done? Film of haggard, drained leaders emerging punch-drunk from marathon summits to solve impossible problems, do nobody any favours. Indeed, the world is suffering ‘summit fatigue’ now.

If stress is part of life and a fast-moving, constantly changing world is where we live, there’s surely a limit to antidotes politicos can convincingly offer?

Stress Relievers

The internet is awash with sites offering methods/potions as the panacea for stress. BootsMD offer tips including: maintain a positive attitude, accept events beyond anybody’s control, be assertive instead of aggressive, express feelings/opinions/beliefs rather than become angry or defensive.

They urge people to exercise regularly, try meditation/yoga/tai-chi, eat healthily, mange time effectively, set limits, make time for interests and social support and seek mental health treatment as needed.

The government has set in motion a well-being stocktake. Fine, but well-being raises ‘health and safety; (as benign nanny or malign fascist, according to viewpoint) in Britain, and a rational debate has yet to be had.

In the meantime, government dreams policies for every conceivable angle of life, even a government who planned the opposite. It’s part of the DNA of politics, practitioners and advisers and their media hangers-on.

Today’s Big Idea, press release, photo-opportunity becomes tomorrow’s stress. Unavoidable?


  • Daily Telegraph, Robert Colvile, The stress of life takes its toll. 2 November 2011. Web 3 Nov 2011.
  • Sunday Times, Robin Henry, Boom time for therapists as stress soars. 6 November 2011.
  • BootswebMD. August 2009. Web 3 November 2011.
  • Stress Management Society. Web 4 November 2011.
  • Psychology Today. Web 7 November 2011.
  • Television news report on teacher stress, April 2010. Web 7 November 2011.

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