Health: Candidates for divorce must put their House in order: The demands of a political career are too much for many MPs. Professor Cary Cooper argues for urgent reforms at Westminster

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Over the last 15 years, the workload of MPs has steadily increased with the establishment of select committees, the proliferation of lobby groups and, more recently, the televising of Parliament, which has stimulated media attention, constituency work and swelled mailbags.

MPs from both sides of the House have commented on the immense workload that has led to a trail of 'broken marriages, ruined health and exhausted irrationality' (Edwina Currie), and which means that 'outside bodies usually know far more about impending legislation' than the people who are supposed to debate it (Dr Jack Cunningham).

Members of the European Parliament have the additional strain of travel schedules, absences from home and the responsibility for constituencies of half a million people.

From research on job characteristics and mental health, psychologists are well aware of the potentially stressful outcome of work overload and role conflict arising from trying to meet too many demands from different areas of one's life. Job conditions and attitudes also carry over to affect behaviour and experiences in other aspects of life.

In February 1992, the House of Commons officially acknowledged the personal and organisational price being paid by MPs for Parliament's long and unsociable working hours. The Jopling Committee Report highlighted the need, not simply for reform of members' working hours, but also for consideration of the impact on their personal and family lives, and on their effectiveness at doing the job.

Although all MPs choose to pursue their careers, few can be truly prepared for the strain which the lifestyle will place upon them. Some MPs undoubtedly felt that public expectations of them were too high, and many criticised the lack of resources or infrastructure. Travel time also took its toll, with significantly poorer psychological well-being noted among MPs spending more than 20 hours on the move each week, compared with colleagues who travelled less.

While the welfare of politicians may not have been a fashionable concern in the past, the growing number of tragic illnesses and deaths now suggest that closer scrutiny of their lifestyles is warranted; not simply with respect to their health but also their ability to carry out their duties. The political philosopher John Stuart Mill argued that 'what we require in a democratic society is enlightened individuals who will be mature and responsible because they reflect upon the issues which face them.'

As a preliminary to planning a large- scale study of MPs, Ashley Weinberg, an occupational psychologist working in Manchester University's department of psychiatry, undertook a pilot study last year. A total of 124 MPs (20 per cent of all members) co-operated, representing both sexes, all parties and regions, and varying lengths of service; 10 respondents were of ministerial level.

The responses revealed that four out of five MPs are working at least 55 hours a week, while 40 per cent of the sample work more than 70 hours. One in six MPs was found to be suffering from poor psychological health, which in the context of the study indicated overwork, dissatisfaction with job performance and suffering a conflict of demands. One-third of MPs also reported higher than expected levels of physical symptoms associated with stress. These included frequent and occasional difficulties with sleeping (31 per cent), motivation (24 per cent), headaches (9 per cent), stomach problems (13 per cent), and eating, drinking and smoking too much (36 per cent); 29 per cent also reported a decreased interest in sex.

Examination of how MPs integrated home and work lives revealed that 21 per cent felt they were not making the best job of either. Seventy-seven per cent agreed that they did not spend enough time with their partner and/or their children, while 41 per cent did not have enough time for social and leisure activities. Despite this, MPs' families appeared especially supportive (83 per cent), the vast majority of the sample feeling able to take work home. (One member claimed never to enter the bathroom without a file]) However, 71 per cent felt work started, or escalated, arguments in the home. Inability to 'switch off' from work, experienced by 83 per cent, may be a major stress on MPs' family relationships.

Looking for an explanation of the above results, we used a personality measure which concentrated on a set of attitudes known as 'Type A' coronary-prone behaviour pattern, where an individual's style is characterised by excessive time consciousness, abruptness of speech and gesture, competitiveness and hard-driving behaviour. Seventy-one per cent scored above the expected range when compared with a sample of senior managers.

Ominously, it is this trait which researchers have linked with an increased risk of coronary heart disease. Perhaps more surprisingly, measuring MPs' feelings of control over their work revealed that 80 per cent endured remarkably low levels of perceived control. Once again, research has linked perceptions of poor control and high workload with an increased likelihood of stress-related illnesses.

The notion of stress produced by a conflict of roles, within work and/or home life was also confirmed. MPs who held posts in addition to their parliamentary duties (30 per cent of the sample) exhibited significantly higher levels of Type A behaviour than other members, as did MPs who had at least one child under the age of 18.

While many MPs manage to survive the multiple demands of their lifestyle - some thrive on its challenges - our pilot study has shown that for a sizeable minority the veneer of coping is wearing thin and is likely to wear thinner without some form of change. The Jopling Committee proposed reduced sitting hours, curtailing night sessions at 10pm and advance notice of debates. Unfortunately, the Government has not yet adopted these practices.

Perhaps our legislators ought to reflect on the words of John Ruskin in 1851: 'In order that people may be happy in their work, these three things are needed: they must be fit for it, they must not do too much of it; and they must have a sense of success in it.'

Cary Cooper is Professor of Organisational Psychology at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology.

(Photograph omitted)