‘The stress of life takes its toll’, The Daily Telegraph, 3 November 2011

November 3, 2011


From The Daily Telegraph, 3 November 2011 (story by Robert Colvile).

‘People think of the working day as starting when you’re at your desk,” says Simon, a City analyst. “But that’s not how it works any more. It starts the moment you wake up in the morning – you switch on CNBC, you pick up your BlackBerry to check on Bloomberg, to see what’s going on, and what it means for you and your company. Your brain’s in gear from six, six thirty – and then it’s into breakfast meetings, research, one-on-ones with clients, briefings, flights. Even when you’re on the train home, or eating dinner with your family, the phone will go, and you’ll have to talk to the office in New York, and see where things have finished for the day. At some point, you find that you just can’t get out of bed in the morning.”

Earlier this year, Simon was diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome: when he spoke to the specialists, he was told that 95 per cent of the cases they were seeing involved City workers just like him. The latest victim of strain and stress appears to be Antonio Horta-Osorio, the hard-charging chief executive of Lloyds Banking Group, who has been ordered by doctors to stand down for six to eight weeks because of physical and mental exhaustion.

Given the pay packets such people earn, it can be hard to be sympathetic: hasn’t it always been part of the deal that bankers work themselves into the ground for a couple of decades in exchange for the chance to enjoy a lucrative and lengthy retirement? Similarly, when Sir Michael Wilshaw, the new head of Ofsted, warns that teachers need sabbaticals because of the risk of burnout, the response might be to scoff: yes, they work hard, but what about those long holidays?

Neither problem, however, can be brushed under the carpet. Every year, more than half of state sector teachers take time off work, with the average absence lasting nine days. Whatever your feelings on public sector efficiency, they can’t all be faking it. In fact, if you pick a random profession, or sector of society – whether it’s civil servants, students, mothers, children or businessmen – you can find a survey or study showing that stress and burnout are becoming ever more serious problems.

Partly, this is a result of the dismal economy. With employment increasingly insecure, and pressures on family budgets mounting, people are doing everything they can to keep their employers happy. According to statistics released last year, the average family now spends only 49 minutes a day together; even those parents with decent working hours feel they can no longer afford extended holidays or outings. We are sleeping less, worrying more, nervous about the economy, and about our futures.

But even if George Osborne could wave his magic wand and bring back the boom years, would it do all that much to help? Almost certainly not – because this kind of pressure to work harder, longer and quicker is inextricably embedded in the way that our society is organised.
Recently, I have been researching a book on the ever-increasing pace of modern life, and have been staggered by how familiar some ancient diagnoses now seem. In 1869, George Miller Beard identified a new disease, “neurasthenia”, which resulted, he thought, from the exhaustion of the central nervous system’s energy reserves.

In his 1881 book, American Nervousness, he argued that the impact of the telegraph, railroads and steam power had caused an increase in neurasthenia, neuralgia, nervous dyspepsia, early tooth decay and premature baldness. “We are under constant strain,” he wrote, “mostly unconscious, oftentimes in sleeping as well as in waking hours, to get somewhere or do something at a definite moment.”

Today, our understanding of medicine is rather more advanced, but our conclusions are markedly similar. Geneticists have discovered, for example, that our telomeres – the chromosomal equivalents of the aglets on shoelaces, which keep our DNA from fraying – are shorter in those who experience significant stress. That can lead to wrinkled skin, greying hair, sagging muscles, impaired eyesight and hearing and lower life expectancy.

Other research has found that high levels of stress hormones are linked to high blood pressure, heart attacks and reproductive problems. Even the make-up of the population has been affected. Several studies have shown that women under stress are more likely to give birth to girls than boys – and, sure enough, the boy/girl ratio has been out of kilter for decades.

The effects of stress are also, as Simon explains, the chief suspect when it comes to his own struggles with chronic fatigue. “In the old days, if you confronted a wild animal in the bush, you’d deal with it and calm down again,” he says. “In the modern markets, your fight or flight mechanism is permanently switched on. Sooner or later, it does so much damage that your body basically shuts down to recover.”

The truth is that we are living in a world characterised – as the communist manifesto put it – by “the constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation”. And at the heart of that process is the impact of technology. In his recent book The Tyranny of Email, John Freeman claims that checking our inboxes “has made us a workforce of reactors, racing to keep up with a treadmill pace that is bound for burnout and breakdown and profound anger”. In the past, he says, only doctors, plumbers and presidents had to deal with being permanently on call – now, thanks to smartphones, it’s all of us.

The problem, however, is that this process is often as addictive as it is alienating. Almost half of us claim to be hooked on email: most of us check it on holiday, and even when we’re in the loo. This is partly because our iPhones and BlackBerries could almost have been precision-engineered to stimulate our pleasure circuits. If you give apes a treat when they push a particular button, they come to get a hit of pleasure from that action. But if you make it so that they sometimes get the treat, and sometimes don’t, the pleasure actually increases: one hit from the expectation, and one hit from the reward.

This random element is exactly the same reason we derive so much pleasure from slot machines – and, of course, from checking our inboxes, to see whether new mail has popped in. Yet today’s uncertain world, with its sudden and unanticipated disasters and crises, is twice as terrifying as a world in which things go wrong more frequently, but in predictable fashion. It is for similar reasons, says the primatologist Joan Silk, that chief executives in the baboon world keep subordinate males in a state of productive terror via unpredictable acts of violent aggression.

Yet no matter how far-reaching the effects of this turbocharged lifestyle, its hooks are in too deep for us to back out now. A study at the University of Granada found that 40 per cent of those aged between 18 and 25 exhibited addictive tendencies when it came to their mobile phones. Switching them off, said researcher Francisca Lopez Torrecillas, “causes them anxiety, irritability, sleep disorders or sleeplessness, and even shivering and digestive problems”. Adults are just as bad: John Freeman reports that being accidentally shut off from internet use provokes 40 per cent of office workers to engage in “agitated mouse-clicking”, with 10 per cent physically assaulting their computers.

Like addicts craving our next fix, our toleration for delay of any kind is wearing thin. In 1999, researchers established that a third of visitors would leave a website if it took more than eight seconds to load. By 2006, that was four seconds. More recently, the acceptable waiting period has halved again. Meanwhile, a USA Today survey comparing life today with 20 years ago found that the anger and frustration caused by every kind of annoyance, from waiting in a queue to getting stuck in traffic, had increased dramatically.

Where will it all end? After the Second World War, the mathematician John von Neumann – one of the brilliant minds behind the Manhattan Project – warned that the pace of technology, and of social change, seemed to be “approaching some essential singularity in the history of the race beyond which human affairs, as we know them, could not continue”.

We haven’t quite got to that point yet. But if the pace of life continues to accelerate, then Simon and his colleagues in the City certainly won’t be the only casualties.

12 thoughts on “‘The stress of life takes its toll’, The Daily Telegraph, 3 November 2011”

  1. The above shows how much we NEED, M.E. to be DIAGNOSED
    FROM C.F.S.
    M.E. IS MUCH MORE THAN BAD LIFESTYLE & STRESS.

  2. That’s right, Kevin j, and if only this country were to adopt immediately the International Consensus Criteria for ME, it would be transformative.
    I know MEA has a huge workload constantly on our behalves, but i think to lobby for the ICC to be used would be SO helpful and important. I hope the Forward ME group will raise this so the NICE guidelines etc are much more relevant to people with actual ME.

  3. O dear! ‘Yuppie Flu’ raises its head again – ‘burn-out’, ‘high achievers’ etc. Stress does have a damaging effect on health and well-being but it is also a good ‘pigeon-hole’ for all the illnesses/diseases that Science hasn’t got the answers to yet. But stress is not M.E. and this is where exhausted bankers, celebrities etc, jump on the M.E. bandwagon and after a prolonged rest/relaxation say they have ‘beaten’ M.E. – this is not M.E.
    I feel the Daily Telegraph has lost its way when it comes to the subject of this devastating illness. It will come as no surprise to find the current Editor of the DT came across from the Mail in 2009. Hence, no printed responses to the Max Pemberton article and nothing reported about the recent Norwegian Study. The article in the Daily Mail concerning this study was very poor – “(M.E.) can last from a matter of weeks?? to several years” Admittedly, the DT article today has only referred to CFS not M.E. but in the publics mind they are one and the same – chronic tiredness caused by stress.

  4. ‘In the public mind they are one and the same.’ Also in the medical profession. Both my GP and the neurologist whom I saw privately prefer the term ‘CFS’ though both privately refer to my condition as ‘ME’ and I am fed up with other sufferers telling me that they are not the same. CFS may be caused by other illnesses but it is also a synonym for ME.

    1. CFS is a broad catch all term, ME is based on a differential diagnosis. People who have ME struggle to get that diagnosis and mostly get stuck in the catch all wastebasket CFS. This is not to say that if you have managed to get an ME diagnosis, either in the last 20 years or before the creation of the political entity CFS, that you are not be in the same god awful situation as those who can only get a label of ME. There will be other diseases both physical and psychological mixed into CFS and they too are being ignored.

      Is it possible that people caught in this trap are the most discrimated aginst section of society in the UK? That discrimination coming from the Government, the health service and the press.

  5. CFS has been used to degrade ME. As I was a child who fell with ME the comparison to city executives who are to busy making money to care about their own health was and is insulting.

  6. I think Robert and Simon are having a laugh— and winding up.
    This article has probably been in the making a full week.

  7. I only came across this – how will I ever sleep again worryng about these poor stressed, chronically fatigued bankers?

    As someone who was diagnosed with ME in 1983 by Prof Behan, consultant neurologist, before the CFS label/artifice I get incensed at this ongoing conflation. People with actual ME are being mislabelled as having CFS; and people who do not have ME, but the less disabling, less complex, ‘chronic fatigue’ are being told they have ME.

    The two illnesses, one a discrete neuroimmune illness, the other an umbrella diagnosis are hopelessly muddled. It is an unholy chaotic mess, and until we adopt the ICC/CCC we will remain in chaos.

    ME in UK should never have been renamed CFS. Never. Look at the state we are in because of it.

  8. Very well said nmj. You couldnt have put it better.
    The general intention was to confuse—-criminal.
    J.

  9. And nmj—this from the Parliamentary Question thread

    “Epidemiological data suggests a population prevalence of chronic fatigue syndrome/myalgic encephalomyelitis (CFS/ME) of at least 0.2 to 0.4%. This means that services for people with CFS/ME are not rare enough to fall within existing specialised commissioning arrangements for rare conditions.”

    your very point!

  10. Since The Telegraph continues to conflate CFS and ‘chronic fatigue’, maybe these poor bankers can take The Telegraph’s very own Dr Max Pemberton’s advice and have themselves some CBT and then get on their bikes! All will be well.

    The next time someone asks me what ME is, I think I will say I have ‘banker’s flu’.

  11. 9/11/11. The online version has now been amended to remove reference to ‘chronic fatigue syndrome’. Instead, Simon’s illness is now characterised as “chronic fatigue”.

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