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Work-related stress: take the blue pill…

October 9, 2011

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…

4 Comments leave one →
  1. October 10, 2011 6:40 am

    Well said, sir. Been there, done that. Take the pill every time! Some poor surgeon wasted his valuable time doing investigations of my stomach – only for the GP find, eventually, that it was work-related stress causing the symptoms. That’s working in the media for you….

  2. backwatersman permalink
    October 10, 2011 9:38 pm

    If it’s any consolation, this isn’t unique to academia. I can think of at least two people in my – fairly small – section who’ve had long periods of time off recently with “stress-related illness” – or what used to be referred to as nervous breakdowns – not to mention one poor bugger who was effectively forced out, having almost suffered a heart attack. And very much for the reasons that you suggest – “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.”

    And all of this in a public library – which is, frankly, just ridiculous.

    I think your choice of alcohol over pills is the right one, incidentally. It’s always worked for me.

  3. Rab permalink*
    October 11, 2011 5:32 am

    Hello Shu and Backwaters,
    If what my doctor said is anything to go by, then it sounds like there are a lot of us on the verge… Of course, she may have been just trying to make me feel better by say that work-related stress is very common but her comments seem to be borne out in the CIPD survey.

    In the cut-throat, dog-eat-dog world of the library service I can imagine things are pretty tough. God knows, the once gentle senior common room has become a bear-pit. As you say there is something ridiculous about it. I feel as if the 1980s have final arrived in universities, there are so many senior academics now behaving like Gordon Gekko. Interestingly, I’m a bit of a product of the 1980s also – a sort of Arthur Scargill with better hair.

    It’s funny how stress manifests itself though. It’s physical. Shu, it sounds like you had a problem with your stomach. I have few outward symptoms – no weeping and wailing, no frantic waving and drowning – I just go red!

    I’m sure the powers that be know what there doing. Work and work and work and work ’til you die, cos there’s plenty more fish in the sea to fry… that’s The Jam, I believe.

  4. wartimehousewife permalink
    October 15, 2011 11:28 pm

    I completely sympathise about the acne – I’m exactly the same. Roaccutane mostly knocked it on the head but has left with recurrent indigestion which I never had before. My outbreaks are caused by stress and lack of sleep and my Dermatologist reassurred me asking whether I had ever seen an 80 year old with acne. Thanks. I also have asthma and I know that it’s 75% psychosomatic – when I get really upset, I stop breathing.

    Stress is a massive problem for so many people and the causes are many and various, but doctors are going to have to get much more clued up about looking for psychological causes behind physical symptoms. People feel so powerless nowadays; there’s no security anywhere and youngsters are being increasingly infantilised because their parents haven’t taught them basic skills or self reliance.

    And I agree with all of you; alcohol is far better than pills in many cases. In fact I shall go and have a large gin and tonic immediately, and I shall think of you all.

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