Christina Patterson: We're more stressed than ever, and they've only just begun

The Saturday Column
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The Independent Online

Among the many books I chucked out in a recent cull at home was one called Leave the Office Earlier. I now can't remember its strategies for severing the shackles that bind you to your desk, though I think that telling colleagues firmly that you weren't to be disturbed featured among them.

On a newspaper, you can tell your colleagues firmly that you're not to be disturbed, and their reply will be very firm indeed. It's simple. At the start of the day, there is darkness on the face of the deep. At the end of it, there are 100-odd pages of coruscating copy, a witty and weighty (one hopes) window on the world. Nobody gets out until that act of alchemy has taken place.

I love my job, but returning to work, after several months off sick, has been a shock. It wasn't just the swapping of tracky bottoms for skirts. It wasn't just the rush-hour Tube. It wasn't just the dramas at Downing Street, or the will-they, won't-they twists and turns in the most gripping romance since Darcy sneered at Elizabeth Bennet. It was the fact that there was a blank page and it was my job to fill it. And it had my name on! And my email! So people who shared my growing view, as the minutes ticked by and the deadline loomed, that what I was writing was rubbish could, in 10 seconds, say so.

In finding work stressful, I am clearly not alone. Nearly a fifth of all workers, according to a survey by the mental health charity Mind, have called in sick because of workplace stress, and lied about the cause. Health and Safety Executive research shows that stress and the mental health problems it leads to – depression, anxiety, sleep problems and alcohol dependence – are responsible for more than half of all the working days lost every year. Oh, and it's killing us. While it's a bit of a myth that we work the longest hours in Europe (Iceland and Greece do more, which wouldn't suggest a hugely encouraging correlation between long hours and the state of an economy), we are, as the recession bites, all under pressure to work harder. And those who work three or more hours of overtime a day are, according to new research, 60 per cent more likely to die of a heart attack than those who don't. What doesn't kill you, as Nietzsche didn't quite say, makes you a nutter or a drunkard.

You'd have thought that all this hard work might lead to greater job satisfaction, but actually it doesn't. Autonomy in the workplace has, in recent years, been significantly reduced. What this means in practice was highlighted for me in an email from a reader this week. She had, she told me, been working in a call centre. She and her colleagues, who were not allowed to leave their desks or depart from their scripts, and had to log "comfort breaks" as a special code into their computer, were getting by on antacids and, in the evenings, drink. No longer able to cope with the "bullying" by managers and customers, she'd jacked it in.

It's hard to see how any of this is going to get better. In the catechism for the new sunshine coalition, released on Thursday, there are promises to extend the right to request flexible working hours (which sounds good), review employment rights (which sounds ominous) and phase out the default retirement age (good if you have a lovely job, bad if you have a horrible one). But all of this is subject to the Holy Deficit, the reduction programme for which "takes precedence over any of the other measures in this agreement". Back, in other words, to our old friend "efficiency savings".

The nice young men who wrote it, the young men whose policies mean instant job losses for tens of thousands in the MoD, and at least as many in the administrative side of the NHS, couldn't, by the way, look more like the cat that got the caviar. David Cameron, when not struggling with the alien concept of foreign languages that aren't Latin and ear-pieces that aren't an iPod, gets rosier cheeked every day. (Next to Angela Merkel, he looked like a nice, crisp, shiny Braeburn. You couldn't help thinking that she'd have loved to stick him in a pig's mouth and shove him in the oven.) Nick Clegg, meanwhile, is so enjoying his role as Messianic sidekick that he's ditched all pretence of self-deprecating charm. "You've never read a document like this," he boasted of the new coalition "programme for government", the day after he'd boasted about the biggest political reforms for nearly 200 years.

Five years of this is not, I fear, going to reduce our stress levels, either in the workplace or out of it. Pass the antacids, it's going to be a bumpy ride. Unless, perhaps, we can persuade those blue-eyed boys in the blue suits and blue ties to Leave the Office Earlier.

Here's how we express our individuality

When the Ayatollah Khomeini launched his revolution in Iran, something happened to the female silhouette. Where once there had been heads, and hair, and shoulders, and waists, and maybe even breasts, and maybe even bottoms, now there were triangles. Sometimes there was one, formed by a single piece of cloth that doubled as prison and handcuff, and sometimes there were two: a headscarfed head sitting on a flared tunic. The symbols on public toilets matched the geometry – triangular heads on triangular bodies perched on two tiny legs.

Our own symbol for the female toilet is a woman in a nice A-line frock. I think we might have to change it. Since the outbreak of that virulent virus, the legging, and the outbreak before that of the "skinny" jean, the British female silhouette has changed. We are now a nation of daddy longlegs. Young women all look like giant stick insects who've been to Primark. Older women tend to plump – and I mean plump – for black lycra. The net result, in the average street, is a forest of black and blue thighs. All this freedom, all these shops, all these choices, and we all look the same. The Ayatollah would surely be amused.

The power of positive drinking

Perhaps in an effort to return us to the days of spinsters on bicycles and warm ale, our new kitten-heeled Home Secretary is planning to reinstate that great British institution, last orders. She had, she said this week, always thought that the 24-hour licensing laws were a mistake, and is now planning to scrap them.

It seems such a shame. How could you not warm to the idea of a nation of violent, vomiting binge drinkers eschewing their 10 pints for a single glass of prosecco before nipping home to knock up some gnocchi? Our coffee-drinking habits might, however, have offered some indication that in matters of café culture, we tend to opt for the American model (buckets of warm milk and monster muffins) rather than the European one (espresso and Gauloises). With the Dunkirk spirit that made us great, Brits heard the phrase "24-hour-drinking", and took it as a challenge.

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