The danger of office life: it drives you insane

One minute you're staying late at the office. The next you're sinking your teeth into human flesh
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The Independent Online

It is a problem which many parents of toddlers will understand. Like other little dysfunctions - bedwetting, fighting with other children, random dumping on the carpet - it can represent a need to communicate, suppressed aggression or simply a baffled hostility towards a confusing new world.

It is a problem which many parents of toddlers will understand. Like other little dysfunctions - bedwetting, fighting with other children, random dumping on the carpet - it can represent a need to communicate, suppressed aggression or simply a baffled hostility towards a confusing new world.

All the same, the problem of biting is not something that the BBC board of governors would normally expect to consider, particularly in the context of the corporation's new director-general, Mark Thompson. According to news stories this week, Thompson has in the past responded to stress in the manner of a strong-minded toddler - that is, by sinking his teeth into the flesh of the nearest available human.

The revelation is badly timed. Thompson had appeared to have made a good start at his new job, making all sorts of positive noises about the organisation now being "happier, less paranoid, less prone to back-biting", a phrase that now seems particularly unfortunate.

Playing the story down, the BBC press department has pointed out that Thompson was in his early thirties then. He has outgrown biting. He was working in the heady environment of the newsroom. The injury did not require hospital treatment. The e-mail which revealed the incident, from the senior BBC journalist Anthony Massey, whose arm was gnawed, to Jeremy Paxman, should never have been made public.

But it was too late. Once bitten, Massey has revealed details of the assault. "It was 9.15 in the morning," he recalls. "I went up to his desk to talk about some story. I was standing next to him on his right and he was reading his horoscope in the Daily Star. Before I could say a word, he suddenly turned, snarled and sunk his teeth into my left upper arm (leaving marks through the shirt, but not drawing blood). It hurt."

Perhaps with an eye to the biter's new position at the BBC, Massey is not making too much of the episode. It was nothing personal, he says. "Something turned in his brain and anyone who had been standing there at that moment would have been bitten." When informed of the assault, the department head put it down to the fact the place was "full of fucking headbangers".

At this point, one needs to remind oneself calmly that the fucking headbangers were working in BBC news, that the man who bit a colleague and, more shockingly in a way, was reading his horoscope in the Daily Star, would a few years later be running the place. When Paxman replied that "the bloke is clearly insane", he was understating the case. There is something clearly insane about the whole institution.

Yet there will be people this morning, as they relax at the start of a long weekend, who in their secret hearts will be wondering what exactly the fuss is about. These readers will, almost certainly, work in an office.

The moment has perhaps now arrived when we need to recognise that working in an office and under pressure sends people mad. The symptoms, of course, may vary. In some offices, a crazed epidemic of satyriasis causes a rash of office affairs to break out. In others, forms of bullying so childish that, in the sane world, they would embarrass anyone over 12, are accepted as normal.

Often, it is the most insane who get promoted and who, when in charge, can indulge their eccentricities with impunity. More junior employees - aggressive, ambitious types like the young "Fangs" Thompson - will occasionally go bonkers.

Maybe one should take a relaxed attitude to the fact that so many senior figures in industry and the media are profoundly eccentric - it gets them through their working day, after all - but there is evidence that the madness of office-dwellers is becoming an increasingly urgent national problem.

For some time now, Britain has had the longest working hours in Europe. A survey published this month by a charity called Working Families has suggested that 56 per cent of all employed parents work more than 40 hours a week. Significantly, only one in five of the overworkers was obliged to do so by contract. The rest were what the report calls "binge-workers", addicted to the sinister alternative reality offered by office life.

Mark Thompson was presumably binge-working when he bit Anthony Massey. While he may not have suffered other symptoms mentioned by those in the Working Families survey - lack of sleep (44 per cent), headaches (36 per cent), depression (28 per cent), loss of libido (15 per cent) - he almost certainly had a problem with irritability/loss of temper (48 per cent).

The danger of office life is that its insanity is seductive. It is easier to deal with a problem at work than with one at home, to attend a bracingly rumbustious meeting than to sit through a family row at dinner, to look at a computer screen than to deal with the real domestic world at first hand.

Thompson and his biting episode have made a contribution to the work-life debate as clear as the tooth-marks on his victim's arm. Binge-working is an escape from life. One moment you are staying late at the office, the next you are sinking your teeth into human flesh. Resisting the lure of work, concentrating at home on positive laziness, is a small but meaningful step in the direction of sanity.

terblacker@aol.com

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