"Stress," said the President, "is a Madison Avenue term." This aphorism comes straight from The West Wing, the magnificently realised television series set in the White House. President Bartlet (played by Martin Sheen, and the best leader of the free world we never had) is making the point that stress is a relatively modern complaint – Madison Avenue is the home of America's leading advertising agencies – and that, even for a US president, most of the difficulties he faces are perfectly manageable. Stress, he suggests, is very much in the eye of the beholder.
We all encounter stress in our daily lives: it could be something extremely minor like, for example, trying to prise open a new bottle of mouthwash (a particular pressure point of mine) or more serious challenges relating to family or work. But it is worth remembering this: in order to cope with one's own stress, it is usually worth comparing it with someone else's lot in life.
It was hearing my friend Disco Dave talk at the weekend that brought this home to me. Dave drives long distances in a lorry with dangerous cargo for the Ministry of Defence. He often does runs to Belgium which involve driving through the night. Whenever I feel like complaining about the pressures of my work, I always think of Disco Dave and his long vigils at the wheel, with only Radio 2 and his copy of i for company. Last week, Mr and Mrs Disco had a baby, George, whose first week was spent in intensive care, but who is now thankfully back home. And when I saw Dave, he had this to say: "I will never again complain about my hours, or the pressure of my job. When you see how hard doctors and nurses work, and the skill and dedication they have, it makes you feel utterly humble."
And that's the point, is it not? There's always someone, somewhere who's got it worse than you, and it's only when you come into contact with them – usually in a medical context – that you are able to overlay your own problems with a coat of perspective. The doctors who looked after little George Disco probably look up to another group of workers: brain surgeons or firefighters, perhaps. And as we start the working week again, with our own set of anxieties and problems, we should, it now emerges, also be conscious of others.
A new study has said that stress in the workplace is as contagious as a cold, and that women are particularly prone to catching it (they're more in tune with the feelings of others, apparently). Passive stress, it's called. So maybe the answer is to treat the office stress-heads like smokers, sent outside to indulge their dangerous habit. And by the time they come back in from the cold, they'll have realised: they're not really that badly off, after all. Have a stress-free Monday!Follow @Simon_Kelner Reuse content