Is stress good for you?
- 16 June 2011
- From the section Magazine
Most people dream of escaping the rat race, but could stress and long hours be the route to a good life?
The lure of a better, simpler life in the country has grown ever more attractive as modern work has become more and more intense. Feeling tired and disillusioned? You need to sort out your work-life balance, take a holiday or find a less stressful job.
But such reactions are totally wrong, argues a controversial new book published in America. Rush: Why You Need and Love the Rat Race argues that far from being ground down by pressure, we need stress to feel alive. It keeps our minds agile, makes us feel good about ourselves and helps us live longer.
Author Todd Buchholz, a former economic adviser at the White House, says he began researching a book about people "chasing success and losing their souls". But when he looked into the subject, he changed his mind. He concluded that rather than slow down, we need to throw ourselves into the rat race, compete harder and relish the stress.
His argument runs counter to the prevailing political wind in Western nations. Lord Layard, author of Happiness: Lessons From a New Science, has been advising the British government since 2005, calling for a gentler form of capitalism. His ideas include a massive expansion of talking therapies and the adoption of policies that support a better work-life balance.
In November 2010 David Cameron announced that Gross National Wellbeing would be officially measured, while President Sarkozy is doing something similar in France.
But Buchholz warns that we've been seduced by the impossible dream of returning to the garden of Eden. And many of these happiness experts and yoga gurus appear to ignore their own advice, as they rush around flogging books and DVDs about the merits of slowing down.
"You've got the happiness gurus, yoga instructors and occupational psychologists telling us there's too much stress," he says. "We need to run away and unplug. But the fact is we've evolved to handle stress."
Being unhappy is far more likely to be caused by wider factors than working too hard. Indeed holidays and retirement are more likely to make us less happy, he argues. Most people enjoy their jobs, it promotes social interaction with colleagues, and is a refuge from more painful parts of their lives.
When we try new tasks dopamine is released in the frontal cortex of our brains as a reward and we feel good. "It's not the reward for winning, it's the reward for being in the game," says Buchholz.
Lucy Kellaway, the Financial Times work commentator, welcomed Buchholz's message with open arms. "I don't need to invoke my frontal lobe to know that he is right about me," she wrote this week. "I find losing myself much more rewarding than trying to find myself - and it's much easier to get lost in work than in the washing up." And it's only through hard work that you feel "sufficiently virtuous" to enjoy self-indulgence, she argues.
The happiness gurus like Lord Layard are trying to make people feel guilty about working hard, he says. "They ignore human nature. We don't flourish when we're sitting on our bums drinking beer and dreaming of vacation." He uses the word "rapture" to sum up the quality of being "in the zone", lost in the task at hand.
In Dickensian times it was the poor who worked the longest hours. But now the people who work the longest hours are those who make the most money, the bankers and lawyers, Buchholz argues.
"Those people aren't duped by their bosses, they choose to work those hours because it gives value and self-esteem to their lives."
One of his targets for abuse is yoga, with its focus on meditation and tranquillity. But Jeanne Rae, marketing co-ordinator for the British Wheel of Yoga, says he makes the mistake of assuming that everyone is like him.
"If you think like that, why bother sleeping or taking a holiday?" she says. "He thrives on cut and thrust and doesn't appear to have an off button, but not everyone is like that. For some people meditation and contemplation can help. When you lie still you cut out the white noise of the world."
European Commission figures for 2008-10 show that Britons work the longest hours in Europe, clocking up an average of 42 hours a week. And a spokesman for the Work Foundation, cites research suggesting that employees working for more than 11 hours a day are also two-thirds more likely to develop heart disease than those who have worked for the standard seven to eight hours per day.
It shows the UK needs to move in the opposite direction to what Buchholz is calling for, says Paul Sellers, working time expert at the Trades Union Congress. Not only is there evidence to show long hours lead to ill health they also create an unstable corporate culture.
"Glorifying the rat race will merely help to ensure that the biggest rats take charge of companies," he says. "Our experience of the banking crash tells us that this exactly what the UK does not need."
Buchholz is correct to suggest that competition at work is beneficial, says Ben Willmott, a policy adviser at the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development. Moderate amounts of stress help people perform tasks more efficiently and lead to a sense of accomplishment. It can also improve heart function and make the body resistant to infection. But that's not the whole story.
"Prolonged exposure to stress is linked to ill health," says Willmott. "A key factor is when high demands at work combine with low levels of control."
Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology at Lancaster University Management School, says there's a huge difference between your average employee and the small subset of middle-class high achievers like Buchholz.
"For a lot of senior people, work gives status, they feel a rush and that's fine. They're good copers," he says. But people on the shopfloor with no control, a bullying boss and job insecurity are far less able to cope.
It's fashionable in the US to decry holidays and see European workers as lazy, he says. But downtime matters.
"It's not healthy if you are constantly doing and not having time to reflect. We're like a machine that's made up of lots of working parts. We don't last forever."
Guardian journalist Oliver Burkeman agrees that Buccholz has a romantic, often unrealistic view of climbing the corporate ladder. For instance, the notion that all lawyers and bankers who work long hours are happy is clearly nonsense. And yet, to take him too literally is to miss the point.
Burkeman, who wrote Help!: How to Become Slightly Happier and Get a Bit More Done, says the idea of work-life balance has got out of control. Work is a part of life not separate from it. And someone who works a 12-hour day is not necessarily a workaholic.
The beauty of "Rush" is its challenge to the orthodoxy that has grown up around serenity and relaxation, he says. "You have to see this book as a really important corrective to the prevailing philosophies. Action and being absorbed in activity is a better path to happiness than deliberately trying to feel chilled out."