12 The Independent Magazine

whatever happened to 9 to 5?

The philosopher Bertrand Russell had the right attitude to work. He said, "One of the symptoms of approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one's work is terribly important. If I were a medical man, I should prescribe a holiday to any patient who considered his work important."

Stephen Palmer, director of the Centre for Stress Management in south London, is inclined to agree. "People are letting themselves get stressed over minor things. Seldom does anyone's life depend on a manager's decision. But they are getting as stressed as if it does."

Palmer, who is a psychologist, doesn't underestimate the importance of occupational stress, which be says is becoming increasingly common as companies "downsize" and "delayer", with the result that those remaining have to work "a damn sight harder". It is just that he has a different approach from many other stress specialists. For him, the answer lies solely in exercise, diet, yoga or meditation. He believes that it is essential to teach employees "thinking skills".

His centre, which is one of the leading stress treatment centres in Britain, sees about 20 to 30 people a week from areas such as advertising, acting, publishing, journalism, banks, charities, the civil service and small businesses, and also runs counselling groups in industry.

Many clients, whether in the public or private sector, are victims of "downsizing". At first, they see the reduction in staff as a challenge. "They feel good. Others have been sacked or made redundant and they have been kept on. They think 'I have been saved'. It is what they have been saved for that is the problem.

"They can work these long hours only for so long. They can ignore their children, if they so choose - it is not children who petition for divorce - but they ignore their partners at their peril. What happens is that their partners get fed up. They often decide that they have had enough.

"So these long-day workers start having problems at home. Relationships deteriorate. That has an impact on their work. Instead of going off to work in the morning feeling cheerful, looking forward to another challenging day on an adrenaline high, they go to work knowing that things are not right with their partner. And they spend a lot of the day ruminating on their problems at home.

"In marriages where both partners spend long hours at work, people can drift apart. Then one of them 'clicks' with someone else at the workplace. He or she starts to have an affair. That has a negative impact on work and home life.

"The paradox is that when things start to go wrong, it is unusual for people to start going home earlier, to try to improve things. They stay longer and longer at work to avoid confronting the problems at home. When they get home, they get nagged, quite understandably, by their partner, who says: 'Why are you so late again?'

"Long hours often have a negative effect on couple's sex lives, One of them often thinks that, because their partner is not interested in having sex, they don't love them any more.

"The other thing that may happen when people are 'over challenged' at work, is that they start to drink heavily or even to take drugs. Unfortunately, people who drink have a tendency to forget things. So someone who drinks will agree something with a colleague one day, and forget that they have done so the next. To counter this, colleagues start to write things down, which makes the drinker feel paranoid and exacerbates the situation."

What are the precipitating factors that finally make people to seek help? "Sometimes their employer sends them. More often, it is some final straw that has broken their back: a work project that has gone wrong; an extra piece of work that they have been given; one more critical comment.

"They come because they feel out of control. They cannot get their work done; they cannot hold themselves together anymore. Sometimes they start having panic attacks or develop obsessional behaviour. I have seen people who check things constantly; who check the contents of an envelope 25 times before sending it off."

So what does Palmer recommend? "We teach our clients to think differently. They have to learn assertiveness skills; for example, how to say no to work that is not their responsibility; how to say that they are going home at 5pm.

"They have to learn to get rid of perfectionism. To be a good manager, you should have high standards, but not be a perfectionist. When people are perfectionists, it often leads to procrastination. They set themselves impossibly high standards, and fear that they will not achieve them. So they put off what they have to do with displacement activities.

"We also teach them to realise that it is not the end of the world if they make mistakes. Unless you are a doctor or a surgeon, your work is seldom a matter of life or death. People get stressed over minor things - someone arriving late at a meeting, for example, which happens all the time in London, because of the traffic.

"We help people get things in proportion. They are often making mountains out of molehills. The method we use is called 'cognitive behaviour therapy', but we prefer to call it 'thinking skills'. It is all about balance, achieving a balanced lifestyle. People need to leave work at a sensible time each day and get a good night's sleep. They should make time for their partner or family at weekends, and preferably get out of the house."

Palmer, himself, is married to a teacher and has two grown-up children. He admits to working hard. "But we always reserve time for each other at the weekends and take eight weeks holiday a year."

'Stress Management: A Brief Guide', by Stephen Palmer and Lynda Strickland, is published by Daniels Publishing, price pounds 8

Answer true or false T F

1 I often go through an entire weekend without spending any time on work brought home from the office

2 Events at work sometimes force me to miss occasions at home which my family have particularly asked me to get back for

3 I never dream about work problems

4 I have at least three significant leisure interests that have nothing to do with my work

5 When I am ill, I tend to take work to bed with me

6 I find it easier to talk to work colleagues than to my partner or friends

7 It is very unusual for me to ring home to say I'm going to be back later than planned

8 I have had to cancel at least one holiday due to pressure of work

9 When I'm trying to read a book or magazine, I find my mind keeps wandering back to work problems

10 I find it a relief to meet new people who have nothing whatever to do with my line of business

Score two points for every true answer to statements 1, 3, 4, 7 and 10 and zero points for every false response. For statements 2, 5, 6, 8 and 9, score two points for each false reply and zero points for every true. A score of 16 or more suggests that you have managed to achieve a healthy balance between your professional and private life. It's not that you are not fully committed to your job, just that you recognise that the price of professional success does not have to be failure in other areas of life. A score of 12 to 14 suggests that when office and outside interests come into conflict, work comes first. Improving your performance in the office would reduce the number of occasions when you feel forced to disappoint your family and friends. A score of 10 or less points to workaholism. For you, life outside the office hardly counts.

Quiz compiled by John Nicholson