Fast-paced lifestyle triggers surge in work-floor stress


Douglas Coupland's 1998 novel Girlfriend in a Coma hypothesises an apocalyptic plague eradicating mankind in a single night, sparing only a clique of ex-slackers turned fascistic overachievers. Confronted by a yawning, hushed world, status and bank balance suddenly redundant, our go-getter protagonists revert to a state of carefree youth, bemoaning decades frittered away in pursuit of indeterminate career goals.

Coupland's deconstruction of post-industrial value systems strikes a poignant chord as the close of August heralds an end to the traditional holiday season, a return to the hurly-burly of the office. Does professional success hold the key to happiness and self-fulfilment? Or are we merely wasting time better spent larking amongst the daisies?

A slew of recent studies highlighting epidemic levels of work-related stress lends weight to Coupland's critique. A British Psychological Society survey indicates 64 per cent of white collar staff regularly suffer debilitating office stress, with over 50 per cent unable to sleep as a result. The US National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health last June expressed concern over the impact of stress on female employees. As far back as 1991, the Irish National Teachers' Organisation said the bulk of its members reported "moderate or high levels" of stress.

The effects of severe stress range from minor ailments such as the common cold to serious conditions like peptic ulcers, impotence and coronary heart disease. An estimated 40 million working days are lost in Britain each year due to stress-induced illness, according to researchers.

Despite widespread consensus that working environments have become more fraught, experts differ over root causes. Combatting stress is problematic because some employees are more susceptible than others, argues Waterford-based psychologist, Dr Oliver Killeen.

"Stress for each individual is unique. Some people can handle more than others. Individuals who are a little light in confidence will react to work pressure much more acutely," he says. "Some people relish a tough challenge - others are flung into despair."

The rush to embrace a fastpaced, technology-intensive lifestyle in Ireland has precipitated a surge in work-floor stress, according to UCD professor of psychiatry Patricia Casey. External factors such as overheating in the housing market, traffic and an erosion of traditional family support structures have fuelled the crisis. The preponderance of stress attacks are caused when domestic woes carry over into work or vice-versa, she says.

"Stress in itself can be import ant in producing good performances and drive in people. It is when it becomes overwhelming or paralysing and people cannot function or function less that it becomes a problem," says Prof Casey. Stress is likely to prove a fertile breeding ground for employee litigation in coming years, warn lawyers. British trade unions brought 783 cases against employers for stress-related illnesses last year, a 70 per cent increase on 1998. Businesses here should steel themselves for a spate of actions from traumatised workers, according to solicitor Gary Byrne, a partner at Dublin firm BCM Hanby Wallace.

"Attitudes towards stress have altered dramatically. Previous generations thought nothing of working long hours in highly pressurised circumstances. Such was regarded as part and parcel of the working day. More and more individuals are less prepared to deal with life's ups and downs. They come under pressure, get a doctor to certify they are suffering stress and, presto, are home on paid leave. Legally, there is not a lot which employers can do about it," he said.

A shift towards a Continental work ethic - in which the mental well-being of the worker is regarded as paramount - lies behind the rise in stress-linked lawsuits, says Mr Byrne.

"In the US, all of this was nipped in the bud long ago. There the attitude is, if you can't handle the pressure, hit the road. But in Europe the worker expects to be mollycoddled to a much higher degree."

Is stress preventable? Only through acceptance that wealth and status alone rarely guarantee happiness, argues Prof Casey. "Changes in the Irish lifestyle indicate higher aspirations and the desire to get wealthier. But when we begin to set impossible goals for ourselves and then work flat out to achieve those targets, stress is an inevitable consequence," she says.