Diagnosis: NICE Stress Distress is Phantom Pandemic

Last Updated Nov 12, 2009 10:06 AM EST

The stress industry has swung into action again. The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) said the cost of stress and work related mental illness was £28bn. This garbage is so depressing it is hard to know where to start, but here is a go:

The £28bn figure is a classic, on a par with finding that 78.6 percent of all statistics are made up on the spur of the moment. It is there to grab some publicity and grab some more government funding or regulation for a pet project. The CBI reckoned all sick leave (not just stress) cost £13bn in lost output. NICE has doubled the number for a quarter of the problem. It is nonsense on stilts.

The next problem is that it confuses stress and pressure. Pressure is actually quite good: it gets us to perform at our best, to stretch ourselves and perhaps learn new tricks.

Stress is simply pressure where we no longer have control -- that is when we become axe-wielding maniacs, depressives or rabbits frozen in headlights. It's not a good place to be. But the stress industry is demonizing any form of pressure. If we all chill out and listen to relaxing whale music the whole day, the country will go out of business and I will go nuts.

They have ignored the reality on the ground. The public sector works hard to reduce employee stress, yet its employees take around two working weeks of sick leave annually. The private sector does not try so hard to reduce stress and gets 7.8 days sick leave annually per employee. The relationship between stress management and absenteeism is tenuous, at best.

NICE presume that stress is all the fault of external factors: it is encouraging fashionable victim mentality where we are all victims of a cruel and uncaring world. If we act as victims then we believe that we are not in control, so our stress will become real.

If we do not act as victims, then we can take control and reduce our stress (on many, but not all, occasions). Stiff upper lip beats trembling lower lip. So NICE are not solving the stress problem, they are making it worse. Duh.

Of course, there are scumbag employers who make life hell; there are ratty customers and members of the public who stress out service staff; there are situations which can be horrible. But whale music will not solve these problems.

  • Employees have a responsibility to themselves: take control, work for a decent employer if you can.
  • Managers have a responsibility to staff: show you care, praise more than you criticise, give support and act like a paid up member of the human race.
All of this is dangerously close to common sense, which is why we will hear very little of it from NICE or any other promoters of the stress industry.

(Pic: meddygarnet cc2.0)

  • Jo Owen

    Jo Owen practises what he preaches as a leader. He has worked with over 100 of the best, and a couple of the worst, organisations in the world, has built a business in Japan; started a bank (now HBOS business banking); was a partner at Accenture and brand manager at P&G. He is a serial entrepreneur whose start-ups include top 10 graduate recruiter Teach First and Start Up, which has helped over 250 ex-offenders start their own businesses. He has and has spent seven years researching leadership, strategy and organisation in tribal societies. His books include "Tribal Business School", "How to Lead and How to Manage." He is in demand as a speaker and coach on leadership and change. His websites include Tribal Business School and Leadership Partnership