Work-related stress: take the blue pill…
Last week we learnt that stress is the most common cause of long term sick-leave from work. The survey by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) and healthcare provider, Simplyhealth, points to job insecurity as one of the key factors triggering mental health problems among workers. Management styles were also indicted.
This story caught my eye because I’ve recently been to see my GP and the issue of work-related stress came up. I was actually there with a seemingly unrelated ailment. I’ve had acne since my teens, when I used to look like a pot of baked beans coming to the boil. I combated that with two courses of the nuclear option for this sort of thing, Roaccutane. That got rid of it. But I continue to suffer occasional bouts of acne rosacea. These outbreaks coincide with periods of stress, a condition, which as far as I can tell, is increasingly accepted as a mere occupational hazard in higher education.
For the rosacea, my GP suggested Oxytetracycline, which I was fine with until she explained that I’d be on this course of antibiotics for 3 months. I baulked at the idea. I’ve had enough antibiotics. Wasn’t there something more preventative I could do?
Well, said the GP, what did I think caused the acne rosacea?
Stress, I replied.
Would I mind elaborating, asked the GP. Was this stress related to my personal life?
I mumbled something about my problems being work-related.
Would I like to talk about it further?
Of course not. Stress is something middle class lightweights suffer from. The sons of Belfast lorry drivers wouldn’t entertain such a condition! Besides, I’m sure lots of people find work hard going but they just keep calm and carry on. What makes me so bloody special?
‘You know’, said the GP, ‘The number of people who present with stress and other mental health issues connected with work is growing all the time. It’s very common and nothing to be embarrassed about. We could prescribe tablets or get you a mental health professional to talk to.’
It felt a little like that moment in The Matrix when Morpheus offers Neo a choice between the red or blue pill, except there was only one pill being offered, the blue one; the one you take and ‘the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe’. I declined. Alcohol works fine and tastes better than prescription drugs of whatever colour. On the other hand, the idea of doing a ‘Tony Soprano’ has its attractions. Bi-weekly chats of a personal nature with an attractive therapist… but I said, no. I am deeply suspicious of the medicalization of work related-stress because its underlying assumption is that the system is fine, it’s the worker that needs fixing with therapy and drugs.
If work-related stress is on the increase, then I wonder how many among us are effectively doped to get us through the working day? And I wonder are we slipping into some sort of science fiction dystopia: a world where humans are sedated and psychologically reprogrammed to make them function better in the service of a monster of their own creation called the Market. A world where humans are subjected to a system that is administered by dull, middle managers whose job it is to endlessly audit performance, carry out staff appraisals and remind workers of how lucky they are to have a job. A world where a ubiquitous, celebrity-lifestyle culture celebrates shallow aspiration and random good fortune, inducing a sort of morbid cheerfulness in its drugged audience.
Maybe I should have taken the pills when they were offered…