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Wednesday, 5 September, 2001, 11:04 GMT 12:04 UK
Agony aunt Anna Raeburn quizzed
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Stress is rapidly becoming a ubiquitous feature of 21st century working life, according to a report by BBC1's 4x4 programme, which goes out on Monday at 1930 BST.

When questioned by 4x4, 92% of the top 100 companies in Britain stated that they thought stress was a growing issue in the workplace.

Constant interruptions from e-mail or the telephone combined with pressing deadlines combine to make employees feel more overworked than ever, while many feel that they must hide their stress for fear of being seen as incompetent.

Suggestions to ameliorate the problem include working shorter hours, taking up gym membership and having massages in the office.

Are you stressed at work? Should companies do more to help employees? What facilities should they provide? How can we better divide our time between work and relaxation?

Highlights of the interview:


Welcome to this BBC News Online forum on workplace stress. We all know all about it - constant interruptions from phone calls, avalanches of e-mails, constant demands from bosses - it can leave us feeling close to breaking point at times. When the BBC programme 4 x 4 asked companies about stress in the workplace, 92% of them admitted that it was a problem. What can companies do to make it easier for their employees and what more can we do to help ourselves? Joining me today is the journalist and broadcaster Anna Raeburn. Anna, you took part in this 4 x 4 programme. Do you feel more needs to be done to highlight the problem of stress at work?

Anna Raeburn:

I think stress at work is going to highlight itself. If the estimated cost of stress at work is 4 billion annually there are only two ways to go. Either we acknowledge that it is a real problem and start to address it or we build it in as a cost to our Gross National Product - which I can't see really happening. So I think it's acknowledging that it's a management problem in terms of companies but I also think that an awful lot of people are their own worst enemies and that people would rather not be faced with stress, would rather not feel stressed, would rather not succumb badly to stress rather than face it and do something about it.


Stella from Hounslow, UK asks: I spent four years working a 60-hour week and feeling outraged by the plight of people who worked 70 or 80 hours. I always thought I was fine and the work ethic I had absorbed as a child made me see overwork as a sign of virtue and stress or exhaustion as an admission of weakness. With the best will in the world and the most helpful employers the modern world defines an individual's value by virtue of his work. The point is, stress does damage and the employers' efforts to cater for the worker ultimately allures designed to keep that worker at work for longer. So do we need to change the whole attitude to work and stress?

Anna Raeburn:

Yes but again it comes from both ends. You can't say that industry, commerce, business will change its attitudes to stress if we, the workers, don't change our attitudes to stress and most of that is to do with self-respect. If people have no job security - and they don't - they feel that they have to do whatever they have to do to keep this job. Now some of us enjoy that - we enjoy working 23 hours a day - we enjoy running like rabbits, we enjoy the buzz - it actually makes us high, we like it. But we do not realise the cost to that. There are a whole other group of people who do realise the cost to that and they build into their lives ways of coping with it. But you can't ask industry to cope with it if you are not going to deal with it better yourself.


Jason in Northern Ireland is annoyed at employers that make people work longer weeks. He says they should keep to the times they hired you for - no more than 48-hour weeks, no more being stretched to handle tasks that you didn't sign up for. In other words it is down to the employers to keep a restraint on themselves. But he goes on to say that aren't we all workaholics and have come to accept that working harder and longer hours are the norm?

Anna Raeburn:

There is a kind of "machismo" - but that really isn't an attack on men because women do it too. It is a kind of wish to be seen to extend yourself - you can cope with anything and you can work 36 hours on a stretch etc. - there is a kind of bravado about all this which is rubbish. That's again about people feeling terribly insecure and thinking that if they did stand up to their employers, if they did very quietly and firmly say to their line managers - this is unreasonable I didn't sign up for this - they would imperil their jobs. So I think there is a really serious underpinning which suggests that people feel that they cannot negotiate with their employers.

It is very interesting that in a world in which the trade unions are undervalued, the only safe way of having your interests represented as a worker is either through a trade union or a professional body. There are always structures in place and there are rights within employment law that allow you to stand up and say - hang on a second, this isn't what I signed up for. Now again you are either a person who will do that or you are a person who won't do that.

I think this is about interpersonal skills. This is about being able to say to somebody - I know we need that order, I know we need that job done, I know you need help because someone is off ill or on maternity leave etc. - but you have to understand that this is for a short period of time until we get that project addressed, until we have taken care of business and then I want to go back to having breathing space. Now that is a reasonable request for a working person.

So once again you can't shove this off onto your employer because there will always be the employer who thinks - good he will do whatever he is told. You've got to be able to stand up for yourself and say - hang on a second, this isn't what I signed up for. We are all going to have to learn about that. There is a day in everybody's employment where you say - sorry, not for me. It is a question of finding that breaking point. But not waiting until you break down before you get to the breaking point.


Neil Johnson in London, UK asks: If people only had a certain type of job then an escalated workload would stress them out. Being ex-forces I know the meaning of stress - having to cope with loved ones who are missing you or friends getting injured or killed - that's stress.

He now works in an office and he looks around him at people getting stressed out because their stapler has run out or someone doesn't answer the phone quickly enough and laughs to himself at the triviality of it all. If they stopped moaning and pulled together as a real team instead of trying outdo each other it would promote a bit more harmony in the workplace. Do we take it all too seriously he asks? Would it be better if we got things in perspective and realised that work isn't the be-all and end-all of everything?

Anna Raeburn:

With the greatest respect he has overview. He didn't start in an office life, he started in the military where teams are built and lives depend upon the maintenance of teams - they depend upon people pulling their weight as part of a unified body. That would be a perfect paradigm of a management skill - that's the management skill that we conspicuously have lost or we are not paying enough attention to. People do crack up under minor things because they have tried to carry major things - they have tried to do their absolute best and then that's the afternoon that the computer goes down or that's the afternoon that the fax goes on the blink and you just scream. So I think what he is illustrating in another way is the first point over again. This is a two-headed monster: one head is us the workers, the other head is the employer - neither can function without the other and neither can get the best for the company if we don't both work together.


Diane in the West Midlands, UK asks: We hear a lot about people in work being stressed. I wished people realised that being unemployed long-term is stressful too. I have no job, no money, I'm bored to death and socially isolated. I have tried to improve my situation by education and training - all to no avail. Having too much time and not enough to do is stressful too. Do we need some stress in our lives to give us a focus?

Anna Raeburn:

This is the good stress, bad stress argument which Dame Judi Dench famously said - there is such a thing as good stress and I enjoy it very much. Most of us do. We don't call it stress. It's very interesting how this word began to be used. I don't think you will find it employed more than 15 years ago. It is a nice short, sharp word and it has brought with it a whole language about how people feel they are demanded of. The correspondent is perfectly right - there is nothing more stressful than being unemployed. It takes you out of the world as we see it. It puts you out on a limb and it leaves you out there - it leaves you with no way back in unless you can get back into employment, back into earning money which will take you into spending money which makes you a member of a capitalist society.

So I think there is good stress and I think there is bad stress. I think what people are afraid of is saying - this isn't good stress, I am not enjoying this, this is horrible. It is wearing and that's what your correspondent is talking about. I am eroded by the fact there is nowhere for my energy to go, nowhere for my intelligence to be directed. There is no hope of improving my situation which would make it possible for me to feel that I am making a contribution to life again - that is extremely stressful. Most of us like good stress, we like to be stimulated, we like to be demanded of and we like to achieve and in that achievement is some sort of energy to go out and try again.


Jahil Ahmed, Manchester, UK asks: There is too much stress in the working environment. There should be legislation to combat this on-going problem. I want the Government to make it a law to deal with stress-related problems when large companies don't give a damn about employee health but only profit.

Anna Raeburn:

He is very right. It would be much more helpful if it was built into employer responsibility - employees' health was a matter that the employer had to take on board. However, we are sitting in the second term of a government which has put into place more and more legislation - we have loads of legislation, loads of employment law - the problem is not whether they are on the statute books, the problem is whether they are able to be enacted and who is going to enact them.

So rather than saying it is all my employer's fault or it is all my fault as an employee, we have to accept that this is something that we in together. Yes, I think it would be genuinely useful to British business as a whole if we took on board responsibility for the health of employees but I think you would have to define that quite carefully. Look at the enormous difficulty that we have had with maternity rights in this country. Paternity rights are still largely disregarded. There is enormous misgiving about our standing within the EC in terms of the fact that they have much further reaching rights of absenteeism than we do - we are frightened to death of it. We always have a movement in this country which says small businesses won't be able to support it.

I think this is a matter of a lot of talking and a lot of goodwill and some trust. I feel that what we are talking about really is that the trust that used to exist between people who are employed and people who employ them has been shot - it has been shot and destroyed and it has been replaced by - I give you a check, you earn the check - if you don't earn the check, you don't get the check and that leaves people feeling defensive and angry. But it is a good point and a fair point but only if it is defined well.

See also:

25 Jun 01 | Business
Stress causes 6.5m sick days
19 Apr 01 | Health
Stress 'costs firms 3bn a year'
30 Jan 01 | Health
'Most workers stressed'
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