The price it exacts in terms of job absenteeism, disharmony in the office, strain on the health service and the increased levels of divorce is now such that employers and government officials have been forced to take it seriously.
Occupational therapists said yesterday that stress levels are being forced up by changing working patterns at a time when traditional family and community structures, which once provided advice and support, are breaking down. But the phenomenon of stress itself is nothing new.
Professor Cary Cooper of the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology said: "If people think there was no stress in the 1920s and during the world wars then they are out of their minds.
"The difference now is that it has become part of the vocabulary of modern life."
Staff who in previous generations were prepared to come to work with any ailment short of a broken limb are now keenly aware of the dangers of heart attacks and nervous breakdowns. Companies are feeling the consequent cost in both absenteeism and in litigation.
Professor Cooper carried out an economic study this year which found that stress is 10 times more costly to British business than strikes. We lose 30 million working days to stress every year at a cost of at least pounds 2bn.
The legal costs are potentially even more debilitating.
The landmark case last year of social worker John Walker, who won pounds 175,000 in damages from Northumberland County Council, started alarm bells ringing in government and industry.
Walker suffered two nervous breakdowns after being exposed to a "health- endangering workload" and was dismissed by the council in February 1988 on the grounds of permanent ill health.
The High Court ruled that an employer owes a duty to his employees not to cause them psychiatric damage by the volume or character of work they are required to perform.
Peter Goodwin, chairman of the Association of Stress Management, said there were another 400 similar cases waiting to go before the courts. When Mr Goodwin founded his association 20 years ago, occupational stress was still almost unknown. "What has changed is that people now expect a higher quality of life, and doctors are prepared to give them a diagnosis for stress-related illness."
The association has set up a series of 24-hour stress helplines for City staff and other high-pressure employees.
Mr Goodwin said that the actions of workers like Nick Leeson, the rogue trader who complained to his Barings bosses about stress before losing the bank pounds 800m, had helped to make employers aware of the potential dangers. He said the highest stress levels were found in financial services, teaching, health, publishing and among the unemployed. Traffic wardens also have a high casualty rate with an average of 30 days a year taken sick. Early symptoms of occupational stress can include irritable bowel syndrome, intense headaches and gross irritability with colleagues and clients.
The growth in stress-related illness is reflected in the demand for treatment. Michael Atherton, the director of the Relaxation for Living Trust charity, offers four-day courses in dealing with stress, which start with an understanding of the physiology involved.
He said that stress was the biological response of the body when it was in immediate physical danger. As energy levels surge, "luxury systems" like the digestive system temporarily seize up.
"Years ago, most threats were of a physical nature," he said. "Nowadays the system is fired over and again by the imagination and perception."
The course encourages people to come to terms with their stress through conscious muscle relaxation, and by making changes to their diet, exercise routine and time management.
The only way Angela Walford can get a night's rest is to sleep with a note pad by her bedside, writes Ian Burrell.
Whenever she is woken by thoughts of her workload as headteacher of a south-west London middle school she puts them to paper. Otherwise she would lay awake all night.
Her job, she says, has grown out of all recognition in a few years. The working day stretches long into the evening and she has had to buy a home computer to cope with the paperwork. A recent, highly successful, inspection by Ofsted raised stress levels to such heights that she said it took her and the staff of Priory middle school, in Wimbledon, eight weeks to recover.
It was a considerable effort in a school where the children speak 33 languages and classes have to be adapted accordingly. Now the glowing report has led to Mrs Walford, 50, being offered an extra headship at an underperforming school.
THE CITY TRADER
Marcus Clemens, 26, who works on the London trading floor for Daiwa Europe, revels in his stressful role.
"In the trading pit we just have to do our jobs right," he said. "If you over sell or under sell it can cost a lot of money so there is a lot of pressure to work hard and make the right decisions.
"My job is not a bit like being stuck in an office, but I would say that if you can't handle the stress you should get out. I love what I do, I take satisfaction from working in a hectic and pressurised environment."
Mr Clemens, who has worked in the capital's money markets since he left school at 16, commutes from Kent. "I leave home near Tunbridge Wells just after 6am each day and I'm hard at it by 7.30. That means I'm up and out of bed at 5.30am and hardly ever get home until after 6pm.
"It's a long day but I thrive on what I do. I don't think about the job being stressful. I enjoy the atmosphere and the competitive nature."Reuse content