There is an increasing trend among employers to locate the source of stress in the psychological state of the individual employee, rather than in the environment where the employee has to work.
This trend manifests itself when employers offer time management courses, relaxation courses, and (the latest trend) mindfulness courses.
The sources of stress
The things that make people stressed at work can be varied and complex. It may be a lack of trust from your managers, micromanagement, overwork, a feeling that your work is meaningless, a lack of autonomy, or a combination of factors.
Dawn Foster in The Guardian reports that:
“According to Will Davies, senior lecturer at Goldsmiths and author of The Happiness Industry, our mental health has become a money-making opportunity. ‘The measurement of our mental and emotional states at work is advancing rapidly at the moment,’ he says, ‘and businesses are increasingly aware of the financial costs that stress, depression and anxiety saddle them with.’
“Rather than removing the source of stress, whether that’s unfeasible workloads, poor management or low morale, some employers encourage their staff to meditate: a quick fix that’s much cheaper, at least in the short term. After all, it’s harder to complain that you’re under too much stress at work if your employer points out that they’ve offered you relaxation classes: the blame then falls on the individual. ‘Mindfulness has been grabbed in recent years as a way to help people cope with their own powerlessness in the workplace,” Davies says. ‘We’re now reaching the stage where mandatory meditation is being discussed as a route to heightened productivity, in tandem with various apps, wearable devices and forms of low-level employee surveillance.’”
However, there is no quick fix for stress at work. A paper by S Michie in the British Medical Journal (2002), “Causes and Management of Stress at Work”, states that the causes of stress are defined as interaction between the environment and the individual. Stress factors can be long-term, ongoing situations, or specific incidents. The reaction of the individual to these stress factors can be an ‘alarm reaction’ where the body’s response to danger is triggered, and eventually ‘adaptation’, where we cease to experience the stress factor as a threat, and merely see it as part of the environment, although it can still trigger low-level unease and dismay.
The paper goes on to identify several causes of stress in the workplace that are the result of poor organisational practices and workplace culture. These factors cannot be fixed by locating the source of stress in the individual; they should be addressed at an organisational level. They include:
“…relationships at work, and the organisational culture. Managers who are critical, demanding, unsupportive or bullying create stress, whereas a positive social dimension of work and good team working reduces it.
An organisational culture of unpaid overtime or “presenteeism” causes stress. On the other hand, a culture of involving people in decisions, keeping them informed about what is happening in the organisation, and providing good amenities and recreation facilities reduce stress. Organisational change, especially when consultation has been inadequate, is a huge source of stress. Such changes include mergers, relocation, restructuring or “downsizing”, individual contracts, and redundancies within the organisation.”
These organisational and cultural stressors cannot be addressed by offering workshops on time management, ‘managing change’, mindfulness, relaxation, or similar courses, as these locate the source of stress in the individual, rather than recognising the effects that the organisational culture has on the individual.
Mindfulness can make people ill
I wasn’t stressed — until I received an email forwarded to me about a session entitled “Tips for staying well at work”, which is apparently part of a “Feel Good Festival”. The techniques offered in this session include “Tapping; Joint Freeing; Breathing; Gratitude and Appreciation; Body Scan”. These are part of a body of practices known as mindfulness, which has been lifted from the broader body of meditation techniques used by Buddhism. There is a tendency in the West to assume that these practices are not life-changing and do not modify consciousness. However, they can be very effective — provided they are taught with the proper safeguards and that people don’t go from zero meditation to ten-day silent retreats. These safeguards (developed by Buddhists over centuries of using these techniques) are often not passed on along with the practices.
There is a growing body of evidence that mindfulness practices can make some people ill. An article by Dawn Foster in The Guardian (23 January 2016) asked “Is mindfulness making us ill?” It explored several case studies of people who had been made ill (or whose existing conditions had been made worse) by taking part in mindfulness sessions.
Claire, a 37-year-old in a highly competitive industry, was sent on a three-day mindfulness course with colleagues as part of a training programme. “Initially, I found it relaxing,” she says, “but then I found I felt completely zoned out while doing it. Within two or three hours of later sessions, I was starting to really, really panic.” The sessions resurfaced memories of her traumatic childhood, and she experienced a series of panic attacks. “Somehow, the course triggered things I had previously got over,” Claire says. “I had a breakdown and spent three months in a psychiatric unit. It was a depressive breakdown with psychotic elements related to the trauma, and several dissociative episodes.”
Another article, by Matthew Jenkin in The Guardian (30 September 2015) suggests “Look out for your mental health before joining the mindfulness bandwagon”. The article points out that the new mindfulness industry is not regulated and there are no minimum requirements for trainers in these techniques. People often set themselves up as trainers in these techniques without having the necessary experience and expertise. Similarly, an article by Robert Booth in The Guardian (25 August 2014) reports “Mindfulness therapy comes at a high price for some, say experts”. The most extreme side-effects are fairly rare, but can include an experience known as “‘depersonalisation’, where people feel like they are watching themselves in a film”. There is also an experience known as ‘the dark night’, where meditators relive traumatic memories. An expert from Oxford University’s mindfulness centre stressed that people should be trained for at least a year before they deliver mindfulness training. Fortunately, the tutor offering the course at Brookes has over 25 years of experience — so I hope that she will be checking that attendees do not experience any adverse symptoms and teaching the safeguards alongside the techniques.
However, there is still the issue that by offering these courses, employers appear to be locating the source of stress in the individual, rather than acknowledging any systemic or organisational issues which may be causing that stress.