Are we justified in feeling stressed, or have we just gone soft?
We're working fewer hours than at any time in modern history, but modern life does pose its own existential challenges
I was at a formal dinner at a Cambridge college last week (as one is) and as the cheese course began to draw to an end, and the three crystal flagons of port, Sauternes and claret ran dry, the conversation turned to stress.
“Everyone is so stressed these days,” noted the lady professor of physics to my left, disdainfully. “You ask people how they are and they invariably reply: ‘Stressed!’”
While one might think a Cambridge don accustomed to boozy three-course dinners isn’t in the strongest position to comment on stress, I couldn’t help but feel she had a point. Stress is now held responsible for everything from headaches, bad skin and weight gain to ill-advised tweets, poor performance at work and the strong desire to stay in and watch Netflix all day.
Last week we learnt, courtesy of a BBC survey of 2,066 adults, that stress is also to blame for the UK’s declining sex life. It was the most-cited culprit for trouble in the bedroom, topping even (though surely not separate from) having children, poor physical health and mental health problems. “We’re seeing an awful lot of clients with anxiety issues,” noted Erin Brady, a Relate therapist. “Anxiety and sex just don’t sit together at all.”
One cause for all this stress, I had assumed, is that we’re working harder than ever. I was surprised, then, when another guest at Cambridge, this one a retired city economist, piped up across the mahogany table that we weren’t, and that working hours in Britain have actually been steadily declining since the Industrial Revolution. As soon as I had drained my glass and was safely aboard the train back to London, I looked this up. And lo and behold, figures from Oxford University’s Our World in Data project confirmed it. Fulltime employees in European countries are now working roughly 20 to 30 hours less per week than during the 19th century.
Your average Briton toiled for 56.9 hours per week in 1870, and only 40.45 hours per week in 2000. Even in the 1950s, according to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), we worked 48-hour weeks and had only 16 days holiday per year. By 2012, we not only had our weekly working hours down to the 37-hours-per-week mark, but annual leave had gone up to an average of 28 days a year. Yet despite working fewer hours and having more holidays, “people do not seem much happier about their working lives”, Dr John Philpott of the CIPD observed, adding that “many exhibit the symptoms of work-related stress”.
So have we gone soft? Has drawing ever further from the existential terrors of the 20th century, with its world wars and rationing, made us snowflakes who think that tapping away at a keyboard for a few hours a day while sipping flat whites and munching on energy bars is simply too much to cope with? Partly, perhaps. But not entirely.
For despite its many comforts and opportunities, modern life does pose its own existential challenges. The march of digital technology over the past 30 years, culminating in our screen-governed lives, has meant that work can, and does, seep into time and space formerly reserved for leisure, relaxation or sleep. This has been devastating for contentment because it has crushed our ability to focus, a cornerstone of psychological wellbeing.
Then there’s the long arm of work-related guilt (itself, of course, a stressor) caused by the destruction of all discipline during working hours. Knowing we can do what we’re meant to do later – on the loo, on the train, at our child’s birthday party – means a hideous dragging out of tasks and endless procrastination. We know we’re doing it, but we can’t stop. Hence the rise of all those internet-blocking apps and programmes, downloaded by many, obeyed by few.
Of course, having got the “stress” bit between our teeth, we’ve become very good – artists almost – at generating it absolutely everywhere. A recent report noted how competitive even downtime has become, flagging concepts like “maximisation of relaxation yield”, and observing that competing for Instagram likes (from strangers) of the cake you made for your child’s birthday party is now de rigueur, as is posting “shelfies” – shots of your bookshelf to show how hip your reading list is.
Included in the rise of “stressful fun” are online fitness forums like Strava, where more than 30 million exercise nuts post the details of their regimes and attempt to better one another’s times. One devotee said he was now prone to “turn any section of my commute into a competition”.
The thought of that has certainly made my stress levels rise. So if you’ll excuse me, I need to go maximise my relaxation yield, preferably with a cool cloth over my brow.
– © Telegraph Media Group Limited