Are we all getting more stressed?

25 May 2016

Interview with

Professor Sir Cary Cooper, University of Manchester

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. He's 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 - That's Cary Cooper and Naked Scientist Connie Orbach, you sat down with him to unpick whether stress is becoming more commonplace or whether it's always been around and that we're just more aware of it?

Connie - yeah, this guy Selye coined the term 'stress' in humans but actually, stress isn't a new thing - humans have been stressed out for a long time but it's only in the last few decades that we have a definable construct...

Cary - It's been around a long time - the human condition. We've had environmental factors, personal factors, affecting people and their health for quite a long time. It's just that over the last few decades more research has been done on how stress affects human health. Whether it's 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. You'll 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 50's. So it's still a relatively new field scientifically and there haven't 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, that's 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, I'm 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 I'm stressed. Basically, when they say that, just generally, they mean that they're under pressure. By the way, pressure is stimulating and motivating but when pressure exceeds your ability to cope, then you're in the stress arena and when that happens, you'll get ill health consequences.

Connie - And if we are more stressed, you mentioned that the types of jobs we're doing have changed but, also, a lot of other things have changed about the world we live in now. So what's 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 don't have the extended family anymore. We don't 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, we're now just into the mother, the father, the kids, So we don't 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 we're 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 it's a very different type of relationship that, isn't it?

Cary - Yeah. What's also happening, I think, is not only the speed of technology and the constant change that we're 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 it's on 7/24 and, in fact, it's 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 we're not in control of it, it's in control of us.

Graihagh - That's quite a statement. Do you feel like technology is controlling you?

Connie - I've had a think about this and... yes. I'd rather it wasn't but I feel like slowly over time. I've tried to stop it but things have just come in more, and more, and more, until I've become the person I never wanted to be - a phone obsessed person.

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

Connie - Absolutely, and there's always an easier way of doing things as well. So I felt like I don't need maps I'm going to go my own way but, in the end, why don't use just use the maps on your phone, and in the in end why don't you just message someone quickly, and in the end why don't you just search for the thing you're all talking about. And then you just can't get away from it because it's always being more useful than maybe I even want.

Graihagh - But is that stressful? It sounds pretty... 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 don't 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 can't get away from it and try turning off my emails on my phone but then I'm like ah, I'd actually quite like to know. I know they're there. I always know they're there so I can't get away.

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