Features

It’s not work that’s stressful. It’s offices

23 April 2016

9:00 AM

23 April 2016

9:00 AM

In the 1920s, the anthropologist Margaret Mead studied the people of New Guinea. She noticed that they hunted birds and squirrels but not flying squirrels. The tribesmen explained that they didn’t like flying squirrels: a thing should be either a bird or a squirrel. They wanted nothing to do with the dirty things. And while New Guineans of the 1920s were not leaders of scientific inquiry, Mead concluded that they were quite unstressed at work.

Bear with me, because I think the flying squirrel may just be the answer to the stress epidemic that is killing us. Apparently, we’re dying of work-related stress. The media, psychologists and union leaders say that stress could soon be as deadly as cancer and heart disease. The British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy calls it ‘the ticking timebomb under UK plc’. Last year the Independent claimed that a stressful work environment could take 33 years off your life. And anyone who worked at the Independent last year ought to know.

Work, they tell us, equals stress. The more we work, the greater the stress. It’s just the price of getting stuff done. The best we can do is mitigate it by talking to some paid gripe-sponge about how awful it all is (we can assume the psychotherapists don’t have too much work yet, since their association is soliciting for more), and try not to work so hard, whatever that means.

The counsellors and psychotherapists are wrong. Long hours at work do not naturally create stress. Tiredness, grumpiness, increased appetite and a need to moan in a pub, yes. But as long as we know what we’re doing and what the outcome is, most of us can work long, stress-free hours. I could graft in the garden, or build Airfix models, pretty much forever. I could go back to my first job of packing toy slime into containers for 12 hours at a time and feel content. From the Victorian foundling in a button factory to the hangman Albert Pierrepoint happily stringing up Nazi adjutants, all anyone has ever needed in their workplace is a clear job description, mastery of their own space and a lack of any emotional hindrance, such as a ‘team’ that is ‘on your side’.


It’s being in a ‘team’ that’s ruining us. It’s management. It’s performance reviews. Work stress, we are told, is destroying the NHS. My mother, who died of cancer rather than stress that’s as bad as cancer, was asked when leaving the oncology department for her final bed whether she would ‘recommend’ the ward, presumably to friends who were also dying of cancer and were shopping around for a grey room in which to contemplate eternity. Never mind that almost everyone who dies of cancer will die wherever the NHS can stuff them, whether or not it’s recommended on TripAdvisor, it’s a community and the team needs feedback. Now, I admired the nurses who looked after mother. I wouldn’t have minded a petty bureaucrat popping in with a clipboard full of stupid questions. But nurses with customer satisfaction questionnaires are the flying squirrels of healthcare. They are a paradox and paradoxes make everyone anxious and miserable.

My first proper job was at a corporate publisher, a workplace so mined with conundrums that just getting to 6 p.m. each day was like wading through Kafkaesque porridge. There was a motivational poster with meerkats on it telling us to ‘Look out for one another’: like all effective scripture its interpretation was left to us. Every document had to be printed for filing, and every document had an endnote telling us to consider the environment by not printing it.

There was an office kitchen with a kettle, but also a sign that using it might knock out the trip switch causing everyone to lose their unsaved work, which would be your fault. Similarly there was a fridge, but the office manager made it clear that someone had let stuff go rotten in there and spoiled it for everyone else. I wasn’t the someone; I think the someone had left and may even have died.

Yet their deed was like original sin; it stained us all. It was not our fault and yet it was all our fault. Where once there were priests and ten very clear commandments, now there was an office manager and a paradoxical kettle whose replacement was nobody’s job but everyone’s responsibility. These and a hundred other tiny, insoluble conflicts were like grit in our underpants that chafed every day. We were stressed.

If the emotional blackmail of being responsible for everyone else isn’t effective, someone will eventually draw up a rota. My wife is a community mental-health worker who is given responsibility for the office kitchen every Monday. Monday is also the day she’s on call to anyone within 30 miles who is contemplating suicide. The more time she spends out of the office saving lives on a Monday, the more apoplectic the email on Tuesday morning about the state of the kitchen. ‘Try and think about the people on your team,’ she was told after an afternoon spent holding down someone’s spurting artery. ‘This office only works if we all pitch in.’ She is never stressed about dealing with suicides, because that’s her job. She is stressed about the idiot who put exploding soup in the microwave, and the false idea of the workplace community that makes this idiocy her business. And the phone calls she misses while de-crumbing the team’s toaster.

Adam Smith made it very clear that a productive society is one where everyone does the thing they are best at, and only that thing. Victorian child labourers understood that. The tribespeople of New Guinea understood that. They did their one job, and their one job only, and then — for the lack of any team development meetings — went home to dinner, possibly a bird or a squirrel.

So the stress ends when we abandon this fuzzy collectivism. We are British. The flying squirrel is not indigenous to these shores. We don’t need to look out for one another, to pitch in or demonstrate synchronicity. We don’t need to have one another’s back. We need to bring back the cleaner, and the grumpy tea lady, the janitor, the photocopy-wallah and all the other drudges we used to have in the workplace in the 1950s and 1960s before post-imperial soul-searching rendered us incapable of telling minions to clean up our filth. Sod it, let’s have people who fan us during the summer months and bring us cocktails. There’s a stress epidemic, and these jobs — lovely, single-purpose, straightforward jobs — will leave us free to live long, productive lives.

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Show comments
  • Sean L

    “They are a paradox and paradoxes make everyone anxious and miserable” eh? Makes no sense, like the article generally. Not fit for a student magazine. Nurses with satisfaction surveys might be ridiculous but hardly *stressful*. Stress in the workplace typically relates to things like fear of losing a client and your livelihood; meeting deadlines; having to prepare a proposal or presentation and not knowing where to begin while it gnaws away at you; other people: colleagues, clients, bosses, employees. Losing unsaved work could be very stressful but the *cause*, kettles or otherwise isn’t what’s stressful, it’s the *effect* that stresses you.

    • Leon Wolfeson

      Hmm? There’s a lot of ways to cause stress and lower productivity – open plan offices, poor lighting, insufficient work space, etc.

      • Sean L

        Yes you’re right – it depends how broadly you want to define “stress”: more or less any activity or inhospitable environment carries an element of stress. Coming from a packed tube train, an otherwise oppressive office space might seem a relief… The stress I had in mind is more to do with anxiety over how some future scenario will play out, rather than the things that are pretty much conditions of working life. Though those things you mention could also intensify such stress… I thought open plan offices are intended to be more relaxing… but that’s probably marketing BS…

        • Leon Wolfeson

          Stress is multiplicative, so in a fairly low-stress environment, worries over planning can’t have nearly such a damaging effect.

          “I thought open plan offices are intended to be more relaxing”

          lolno. They’re about management being able to “see people working”, etc.

          There’s well known guidelines for actual productivity – mixed-skill small teams in offices, etc.
          (I do a bit of teaching agile software principles, this is all settled stuff)

          • #toryscum

            Small teams of specialised generalists, clear specs and a hands on, dedicated, product owner. and most importantly, clearly defined roles and responsibilities. i love agile, as long as it is done right! (which, let’s be honest, it normally isn’t).

          • Leon Wolfeson

            “(which, let’s be honest, it normally isn’t).”

            Oh yea, got no illusions there 🙂

      • Philsopinion

        I’m fairly sure sitting down all day has been recognised as a stressor also.

        • Leon Wolfeson

          Yes, but recent studies show standing desks may not be that much better either ><

          • Philsopinion

            We should just f### the whole charade off then

          • Leon Wolfeson

            To be fair, this is an area of ongoing studies.

  • plainsdrifter

    Sounds a bit like the EU: the only thing it creates are regulations and directives. Nothing else to do.

    • Leon Wolfeson

      So you don’t know about the EU…

      • plainsdrifter

        Oh right.

  • Leon Wolfeson

    Germany has rules like access to natural light, etc.
    Works wonders for productivity.

  • Philsopinion

    Boring jobs are the most stressful of all. Perhaps the author could try a life of single-purpose, straightforward jobs rather than ‘corporate publishing’ and see how he gets on.

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