Science Interviews


Wed, 25th May 2016

Are we all getting more stressed?

Professor Sir Cary Cooper, University of Manchester

Listen Now    Download as mp3 from the show Stressed? You're not the only one...

Stress is a realitively new concept but rates have been on the rise in recent years,Sad but why? Connie Orbach spoke to Cary Cooper about our mental health...

Cary - Well, stress has been around a long time - the concept of stress has, particularly in engineering. The construct being pressure on material things, on physical things. Where that converted to human beings probably started with Hans Selye at the University of Montreal. Heís a medic and he started to talk about the stress on the human body and he used a lot of the early work by Cannon, who was an engineer, saying - hey, if there can be stress on physical objects, then there can be stress, an IC stress as he says as a clinician, on human beings.

Graihagh - Thatís Cary Cooper and Naked Scientist Connie Orbach, you sat down with him to unpick whether stress is becoming more commonplace or whether itís always been around and that weíre just more aware of it?

Connie - yeah, this guy Selye coined the term Ďstressí in humans but actually, stress isnít a new thing - humans have been stressed out for a long time but itís only in the last few decades that we have a definable constructÖ

Cary - Itís been around a long time - the human condition. Weíve had environmental factors, personal factors, affecting people and their health for quite a long time. Itís just that over the last few decades more research has been done on how stress affects human health. Whether itís in the workplace - one of the factors in the workplace that cause people to get stress, or in life more generally.

Connie - I seems to be reading that people are more stressed than ever before. I hear it all the time, but is that really true or is that just something we like to say?

Cary - No, I think it really is true. I mean, if you just take a look at the workplace. Musculoskeletal diseases was the main cause of sickness absence in the UK for decades. Now it is the common mental disorders of depression, anxiety, and stress. The are now the leading causes of sickness absence, not just in the UK workforce by the way, but throughout the developed world. Youíll see that in the E.U., in E.U. countries, in North America, it is now the leading cause.

Graihagh - OK,  I understand that in the workplace, as jobs have changed so have the reasons for sickness from physical problems to mental ones but are there actually any stats to back this up?

Connie - Well this is a slightly tricky one, as Cary said, people have only been studying stress since the 50ís. So itís still a relatively new field scientifically and there havenít been many studies looking at a change in population health, but what there has been has brought in, well, I think, some alarming statistics. When asking are we getting MORE stressed, universities have reported a 10% increase in uptake of their counselling services year on year with mental health problems on campus increasing from 8,000 to 18,000 cases in just four years.

Graihagh - Wow, thatís quite a lot.

Connie - Yes. I was looking for studies and I came across this one and was really quite surprised.

In terms of big numbers, in 2014 the charity, Mind (the mental health charity), found that 56% the workers they polled reported workplace stress which is a crazy amount.

Graihagh - Sorry, Iím a bit speechless - 56% is a staggering amount. But I wonder, is there a difference between stress and, you know, having a lot on your plate?

Connie - Yep. Absolutely and so when does stress become a problem and, actually this is something I asked Cary. A difference between pressure and stress

Cary - People will say Iím stressed. Basically, when they say that, just generally, they mean that theyíre under pressure. By the way, pressure is stimulating and motivating but when pressure exceeds your ability to cope, then youíre in the stress arena and when that happens, youíll get ill health consequences.

Connie - And if we are more stressed, you mentioned that the types of jobs weíre doing have changed but, also, a lot of other things have changed about the world we live in now. So whatís causing this increased stress?

Cary - Well, there is a variety of things. First of all technological advance is much faster than ever before. People have been more mobile. If you think about it, 30 or 40 years ago, people worked within a radius of 30 miles of where they lived. They had the community around them, they had their extended family; we donít have the extended family anymore. We donít have the natural councillors in our environment: the aunties, the grandmas, the neighbours who knew four generations of your family, who were people you could go and talk to because people weren't mobile. But now people are looking for jobs, they're moving away from their extended family and, basically, weíre now just into the mother, the father, the kids, So we donít have now the kind of support systems that we had then, and really the insecurity in society generally now. Jobs are not longer for life and weíre working longer hours. If you take the UK, we have the longest hours in the developed world behind the United States.

Connie - You talked about connectivity but connectivity through technology. We are constantly switched on and constantly available. We talk about relationships but itís a very different type of relationship that, isnít it?

Cary - Yeah. Whatís also happening, I think, is not only the speed of technology and the constant change that weíre undergoing as a major kind of outside source of stress on people, but think about information and communication technologies. Just think about email. Email is overloading people; through mobile technology itís on 7/24 and, in fact, itís interesting that many employers now are closing down their servers at the weekend because people are accessing it too often, some at night. The technology has gone so fast that weíre not in control of it, itís in control of us.

Graihagh - Thatís quite a statement. Do you feel like technology is controlling you?

Connie - Iíve had a think about this andÖ yes. Iíd rather it wasnít but I feel like slowly over time. Iíve tried to stop it but things have just come in more, and more, and more, until Iíve become the person I never wanted to be - a phone obsessed person.

Graihagh - I think itís with the invention of smartphones, actually, that you never quite switch off. Thereís always a social media outlook: twitter, facebook, instagram to be checking. Thereís emails, texts, Iím thinking instant messaging as well. Youíre bombarded with different types of communications because of this new technology.

Connie - Absolutely, and thereís always an easier way of doing things as well. So I felt like I donít need maps Iím going to go my own way but, in the end, why donít use just use the maps on your phone, and in the in end why donít you just message someone quickly, and in the end why donít you just search for the thing youíre all talking about. And then you just canít get away from it because itís always being more useful than maybe I even want.

Graihagh - But is that stressful? It sounds prettyÖ I mean for me certainly it seems pretty useful. I have to admit when I see 100 notifications on an instant messaging app, it does kind of freak me out but I donít think it stresses me out.

Connie - I think what that all does for me is it just makes this phone ever present by using it all the time, by always being more useful than not. I canít get away from it and try turning off my emails on my phone but then Iím like ah, Iíd actually quite like to know. I know theyíre there. I always know they're there so I canít get away.


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