A culture of stress?

I’ve been reading a number of articles recently, in addition to the Times one I’ve referred to previously, on the subject of stress and mental health in the City.  Some of these date back to the last financial crisis in 2008 whilst others are very recent.  What struck me was an eerie sense of déjà vu: we seem to have been here before, both in terms of financial crisis and also in terms of the devastating effects this has on people’s mental health,

In 2008 reference was made in one article by Annie Kelly in The Guardian to the ‘square-mile syndrome’, a term used to describe stress-related mental health problems faced by City workers (though of course this also refers to that other ‘City’, Canary Wharf).  And here we are at the end of 2011 and nothing seems to have changed.

One of the popular perceptions regarding the City is that not only does everyone earn obscenely large amounts of money but that it’s also a very stressful environment.  And some might argue that the financial rewards are compensation for such stress.  However, this can make it very difficult for others (both within and outside of the City environment) to have much sympathy for those who start to crack under the strain.  As Robert Colville writes in a piece in the the Telegraph:

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?

Unfortunately this isn’t much consolation to those people who are in middle of a severe depression or experiencing acute anxiety.  It also highlights a more fundamental problem which is mentioned time and time again in articles about stress in the City: the fact that no one feels able to admit that they are stressed, that they are suffering psychologically.  There are a number of references to the ‘macho’ culture of the City and a ‘survival of the fittest’ culture (see for example the comments of Professor Cary Cooper cited in a posting in AsiaOne).

Perhaps it’s also important to understand how the term ‘stress’ is being used in this context.  Often ‘stress’ is a euphemism for a range of psychological problems including anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and even more serious problems such as bi-polar disorder and paranoia.  It is often said that a certain amount of stress is a good thing and that many people thrive on it.  However, one of the reasons that stress can become problematic is when a person feels they are no longer in control.  This is why it’s often those ‘lower down’ the organisational hierarchy who experience the most stress, because they have less control over their lives in the workplace.

However, in a globalised, 24/7 environment, where a person is permanently ‘at work’ (even when they are at home) can anyone really feel they are in control?  When they and the organisation they work for are at the mercy of global economic forces, and when there is permanent crisis and uncertainty (which some would argue is the essence of capitalism)?