The causes of stress at work are likely to be fundamental and organisational, says Steve Crabb

In last month’s column I argued that occupational stress was now a very serious problem in many workplaces, and that sensible employers should be thinking about conducting stress assessments and putting in place action plans now, before the Health and Safety Executive comes calling.

According to the HSE’s website, about half a million people experience work-related stress at a level they believe is making them ill; up to five million people in the UK feel “very” or “extremely” stressed by their work; and work-related stress costs society nearly £4bn every year.

Most of us have our own personal ‘war stories’ about our experiences of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ stress, and quite a few of us have at least one self-help guide to managing stress. lists 6,500 books, 234 audio tapes and 17 videos on the topic. This is just the tip of the iceberg; search for ‘whale music’ or ‘chill-out’ CDs and you’ll see what I mean. Stress management is becoming a very big industry indeed.

Except, as the HSE’s website acknowledges, “some academics have argued that stress is an almost meaningless term and does not exist”.

The godfather of the stress sceptics is Rob Briner, senior lecturer in organisational psychology at Birkbeck College, London. He isn’t arguing that the five million stressed people I referred to earlier (plus me and probably you) are making it up, but rather that the concept of ‘stress’ has no foundation in medicine, and simply obscures the real problems at work. In fact, ‘stress’ is a comparatively recent construct. Until the middle of the 20th century ‘stress’ was only ever used in a strictly mechanical sense by engineers and biologists. There was, however, a thriving industry in self-help manuals advising people how to deal with ‘bad nerves’. As Briner entertainingly demonstrates, most of the literature on nervous problems looks laughable today, but at the time it was taken deadly seriously. The ‘nerves’ industry died almost overnight when ‘stress’ was born.

According to Briner, putting everything down to ‘stress’ reduces a complex chain of physical and psychological responses to a single, catch-all condition. It’s the equivalent, he says, of going to see your GP and being told you are suffering from ‘illness’; utterly meaningless and impossible to demonstrate clinically.

You might be displaying symptoms such as high blood pressure, insomnia or depression, but there’s no medical test for stress because there’s no actual condition of that name. That doesn’t stop GPs from signing their patients off sick with stress in their tens of thousands, and now that there’s case law legitimising stress as a concept, employers have to work with it. Unfortunately, too many employers randomly offer stress management solutions such as onsite massage, subsidised gym membership or ‘duvet days’, without having any evidence as to whether this will be effective in dealing with the particular problems which are causing their staff to feel anxious, depressed and so on.

The real issues may be to do with job design, working conditions or any number of fundamental causes that are unlikely to be relieved by feng shui.

The HSE takes a pragmatic position. “Whatever you choose to call it, there is a clear link between poor work organisation and subsequent ill-health,” says the HSE’s website. Briner would agree, although he points out that it is still a lot healthier to be in a job rather than be unemployed. And anyway, levels of job satisfaction have been stable for the last 20 years, even though we’re all complaining that our work-related stress is going up.

What’s more, he’s doing something about it: Briner is working with the HSE to identify a toolkit of measures which might help reduce workplace ‘stress’. Whale music isn’t likely to be one of them.

n Steve Crabb is editor of People Management