Stressed out Britons create boom-time for therapists

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The Independent Online
HAVING TROUBLE sleeping? Libido not what it was? Don't worry, it's stress. Tomorrow a new report will tell us what we have been told countless times before - there's a lot of it about.

But what is new is what you can do about it. Stress costs British industry about pounds 20bn a year but the symptoms, real or imaginary, generate much more than that for the growing army of counsellors, analysts and therapists.

A call to Talking Pages or a leaf through Yellow Pages will tell you that stress is big business. Huge swathes of advertising space once occupied by car dealers, taxi firms and Chinese takeaways are now the preserve of the stress busters. The UK register of counsellors has 1,700 members, but it is believed there are at least 25,000 unregistered counsellors treating about 100,000 people a year and there are more than 500 organisations offering training for counselling - at a price, of course.

Even the legal profession is jumping on the bandwagon after a council worker successfully sued her bosses for suffering from stress. More cases are expected in the courts soon.

If you have the money you can talk to someone, anyone, about your problems whether they are sexual, work-related, financial, mental or physical. There are treatments for depression and addictions, therapies for relaxation, counselling for bereavement. There are counsellors for all, from the cradle to the grave. And if you haven't got the money, some medical insurers will pay for counselling.

However, Dr Frank Furedi, of Vanderbilt University, Texas, believes that some counsellors do more harm than good. "Counselling has created a damaging culture of dependency," he says.

His views are also held by Professor Yvonne McEwan, a trauma specialist at Fife University, Scotland, who recently addressed a European trauma conference saying: "Professional counselling is largely a waste of time and does more to boost the ego of the counsellor than help the victim. It is ethically bankrupt, and practised by ignorant, over-zealous people who are feeding their own egos."

Carole Spiers, an occupational stress counsellor, said she firmly believes stress is a real problem, but she also expressed concern at the number of therapists and counsellors in business. "Stress is real, it does exist and so does the burgeoning industry around it. People are setting themselves up as counsellors because they see it as a gravy train. They think treating stress is a money-spinner, a good route to earning money."

Ms Spiers, who works in north London, says one of the best-known groups, The Samaritans, formed in the 1950s, began when a need for counselling was identified as close-knit families and community structures became less common. "The next-door neighbour, the cousin, the aunt, the grandmother would always be on hand to talk and listen to problems. However, now people have less time for others. Even at the work place you no longer have people gathering by the coffee machine - instead, they use their e-mails to communicate. Technology is getting in the way and people are no longer talking."

The latest lucrative vein opened by the industry will offer the legal profession rich pickings. Last month, Beverley Lancaster, a Birmingham council worker, was awarded pounds 67,000 after she claimed work-related stress had ruined her life.

Now Unison, the public sector union, which represented her, says it has other cases in the pipeline. Companies have been urged by their unions and lawyers to think about reducing staff stress levels to prevent further claims.

At Stirling University, in Scotland, there is already a revolutionary stress monitoring scheme underway. Staff are issued with a "sticky dot" which alerts them to stress, indicating when to take that coffee break. Stuck on the arm, the Biodot - which could prove to be a money spinner for the manufacturers Stresswise - alters colour as stress levels vary and warns when too much pressure is building up; if it turns black the wearer is too stressed.

British Petroleum is also taking preventative steps. At its offshore oil rigs, workers now enjoy body massage treatments as part of the company's initiative to "de-stress" its employees.

After winning her historic case, Ms Lancaster said: "I didn't start out with the idea of getting a payout. I spent two years trying to get help from the council. I only went to Unison once every other door had been shut on me." Some might say it's lucky for her she turned to her union and not a counsellor.