Editor-At-Large: Stress? I'll give you stress

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The Independent Online

We've become a nation of whingers and spongers, with more people than ever (2.7 million) claiming incapacity benefit. And what illness has swept the land, what modern plague is felling the workforce and costing the country an astonishing £13bn a year in state handouts? It used to be called "back pain" - now it's got the catch-all tag of "stress". Can you believe that over one million people are suffering from this mystery ailment, which as far as I know didn't exist before the 1960s? Illnesses definitely come and go, in and out of fashion. In the 1990s, one in seven new claimants decided to be suffering from back pain. That figure has mysteriously dropped a decade later by more than 40 per cent. I don't believe that the design of the average car seat or office chair has improved that much, that the workforce have all remembered to bend their knees when lifting heavy objects, or that thousands of middle-aged men and women assiduously spend 30 minutes a day performing exercises that will strengthen

We've become a nation of whingers and spongers, with more people than ever (2.7 million) claiming incapacity benefit. And what illness has swept the land, what modern plague is felling the workforce and costing the country an astonishing £13bn a year in state handouts? It used to be called "back pain" - now it's got the catch-all tag of "stress". Can you believe that over one million people are suffering from this mystery ailment, which as far as I know didn't exist before the 1960s? Illnesses definitely come and go, in and out of fashion. In the 1990s, one in seven new claimants decided to be suffering from back pain. That figure has mysteriously dropped a decade later by more than 40 per cent. I don't believe that the design of the average car seat or office chair has improved that much, that the workforce have all remembered to bend their knees when lifting heavy objects, or that thousands of middle-aged men and women assiduously spend 30 minutes a day performing exercises that will strengthen their abdominal muscles. Forget it. We've actually got fatter and flabbier and certainly more at risk from heart disease. No, there's a new illness for the workshy to catch, and these days, people who've never even seen a war zone, only the inside of a commuter train or a large office, will generally decide they can't cope and rush off to their GPs to be signed off from work indefinitely, suffering from stress.

Stress is a pretty mysterious condition because the number of people suffering from mental illness in this country hasn't actually risen at the same rate. And once your doctor has decided you are suffering from stress, there's such a shortage of counsellors and therapists you can be stuck on a waiting list for months, probably years. So you can sit at home, pop some anti-depressants and just be miserable while the rest of us get on with working, paying our taxes and National Insurance, to fund your convalescence.

One psychiatrist asserted that the reason for the increase in people claiming to be suffering from stress is that there is no stigma attached to it. Exactly! As far as I'm concerned stress is a designer ailment that many of the so-called afflicted suffer from with pride. Not only is it not embarrassing to be suffering from stress, in many quarters it is almost a badge of achievement, a sign that you've worked so much bloody harder than anyone else in the team it was the natural outcome.

We get struck down by stress after seeing car accidents, witnessing shootings, losing relatives, getting divorced, getting married, moving, being sacked, starting a new job and spending too much on our credit cards. Stress was once the term employed by engineers and structural mechanics to describe the forces endured by beams with different loadings. Now it's something vague and all-encompassing, requiring hours of chatting to a kindly psychiatrist. Most of the characters in Paul Whitehouse and Chris Langham's brilliant BBC1 comedy series Help were probably suffering from stress. Incoherent and incompetent, victims of 21st-century Britain, they were men going nowhere, stress hanging like a big black cloud over all their heads.

I'm not suggesting that we return to the Fifties Britain of Mike Leigh's film Vera Drake, where all medical conditions from heavy menstrual bleeding to heart attacks are best treated with a strong cup of freshly brewed tea, because I am quite sure that out of 1,025,000 people claiming incapacity benefit because of "stress" there are probably 25,000 deserving cases. I'm sure that it must be exhausting for overworked doctors, faced with a surgery full of miseries, to come up with a way of shuffling them in and out of the door in the 12 minutes or so each patient is allotted. But we must blame doctors for doling out prescriptions for anti-depressants, and for signing up to the myth that is stress.

Is it too much to ask that employers do not have to accept stress as a reason for absence without a second opinion? Experts agree that the workplace has not got more stressful in the past 10 years. If anything there is now a whole raft of health and safety legislation designed to safeguard the well-being of workers, with new legislation relating to noise levels in the pipeline. A couple of generations ago the British workforce stood on assembly lines in draughts and dirt. We were a country with a manufacturing and engineering industry at our core. With the collapse of Rover, it's more evident than ever we are a nation of shopkeepers, leisure park attendants and heritage ticket collectors. The truth is, most people grow up with unrealistic expectations of what life has in store for them. They don't bother to pay any attention at school, and then are astonished to discover that work is boring and not too wonderfully paid. Most people don't look like those airbrushed pieces of perfection in glossy magazines. Most men haven't got thighs like footballers or the pulling power of a multi-million pound golfer. Life's like that - unfair. And so, the extremely disgruntled will claim they have "stress". I really resent paying for it, and so should you. Cut the stress bill and we get new hospitals, better pay for nurses and teachers, new equipment and books for schoolchildren, and regular visits to museums, galleries, swimming pools and sports centres for every person under 18. That's worth upsetting a few hypochondriacs, surely?

Lost leaders

The election campaign has already degenerated into farce and we've got weeks to go. Blair and Howard started promisingly by meeting voters on a whole range of television programmes, and Five's show, where Mr Howard dealt with questions from members of the public face to face, worked particularly well. Mr Blair proved how adept he was at the medium when he endured strong criticism from an audience of women on the BBC. Jonathan Dimbleby proved to be a pompous and somewhat intrusive host, and although Mr Blair would not apologise for the war in Iraq he was right to let the arguments against his war strategy be heard. But talking to the public in a highly structured situation like a television studio hosted by professionals is one thing - explaining your policies to stroppy journalists is another. Neither of the two leaders really want to engage with the press on a daily basis - I think the term is "news management". Mr Blair wants to be photographed in front of the same group of "ordinary" party supporters over and over again, while Mr Howard wants to be photographed meeting matrons in a hospital, but does not want journalists to witness the encounter. It was, apparently, a photo-opportunity. Both men are making a big mistake if they think they can manipulate their coverage in this way - this is a battle only the press can win, and it's getting nastier by the day.

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