Chill out and be stressed

3rd February 2006 at 00:00
Back at her college for just two days and my friend, who teaches Business Studies, rings me up and says "I've just had the worst day ever! This job's too stressful, I need a drink!" I don't like to tell her that she says the same thing every time we talk. Everyday is her "worst day ever".

Just a few weeks into the new term and she is not alone. Everyone I meet feels completely stressed out.

She had been on holiday after Christmas and that may explain her stressed-out state. As the miserablists never tire of telling us, seemingly nice things like holidays and family Christmases are extremely stressful life events. We can only blame ourselves if we go back to work and immediately feel stressed. Serve us right for thinking that Christmas could be full of simple harmless pleasures and even unregulated fun and games.

Perhaps the solution is to stay at work, or keep working over the holidays so we don't feel discomfort on returning to college.

Talking about stress at work and saying how stressed we feel, has become a contemporary obsession and, simply because it has become a commonplace in conversation, we fail to see that what we mean by it has changed. A decade ago, studies of stress in further education linked it clearly to lack of opportunity for promotion and a range of problems associated with overwork and dealing with ill-motivated students. It is easy to forget that seeing these issues as having a personal and psychological element was a relatively new development, no matter how familiar the idea is to us today.

The psychological turn that led many isolated individuals to think that they were unable to cope was easily explicable because of the demise of collective approaches to solving workplace problems. But there is more to it than this.

What happened with the bureaucratisation of FE over that decade is that stress became not so much a response to overwork, but to the pointlessness of most of the work lecturers and managers had to do. Paperwork is a good example. The tiresome work involved in producing and presenting student records, course documents, handbooks, guides, quality reports, paperwork for inspections, endless procedures and codes, many of them approaching the length of telephone directories, is stressful because it is just pointless.

All this bureaucratic effort has not improved one single lesson or course, and, by wasting lecturers' time, has undoubtedly made the education and training of students become duller and more formulaic. But there's even more to it than this.

Stress, as we currently use the term, applies to every aspect of our working and personal lives. Examples abound. Examinations are no longer ways of showing off what you know, but major life crises that need "coping with exam stress" courses before students can face taking them. Even mundane and ordinary events are seen as stressful. Students get stressed if their train is 10 minutes late, or their lecturer is late, or if they have to meet deadlines for submission of course work. My friend's bad back is caused not by playing squash but, he claims, by working in his college.

Having to teach is stressful and so is having to do marking. Even going out with your workmates is stressful, presumably because relationships might become closer or more personal. Worse still, taking on interesting and exciting work that uses our creative power is seen as just piling on stress. Not long ago we would have seen stress as a necessary, even enjoyable element of new work, rather than saying "Why bother?!" and worrying that taking on demanding work is going to leave us stressed out.

There is no escape though because, as the miserablists again remind us, home life is stressful, getting and being married, sticking together, having and bringing up the kids and then the chore of having to do things together. Even retirement is stressful with all that DIY. The stress of family life is too much, so why bother? That is why we are seeing a rise in selfish singleton lifestyles. Why place yourself in stressful relationships?

We have talked ourselves into seeing stress in everything and we cannot escape. The problem is that, having talked ourselves into seeing stress in everything, it is really there. We are really stressed by things that are merely everyday events and even by things that should be pleasurable.

Feeling stressed is still to some extent about being overworked or having to do pointless work, but is much more about not wanting to bother or be bothered. All the recent concerns of government, corporate investors, managers, and unions about the urgency of dealing with stress take it as something that must be managed. Soon we will all be sent on stress management courses and subject to surveys that will just increase our sensitivity to stress. The real problem is that avoiding stress is really about not being bothered and avoiding what makes life worth living. It is about avoiding challenges and therefore the possibility of taking control of our lives. We just need, as one of my students said when her friend got stressed during a group presentation, to chill and learn to enjoy and even welcome stress. If we don't, everyday will soon appear to us all to be "the worst day ever".

Dennis Hayes is the head of the Centre for Professional Learning at Canterbury Christ Church university

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