What's the best way to counteract stress at work? A counselling or monitoring programme perhaps, or will a quick fag in the car park and a couple of stiff ones at lunchtime do the trick?
In the wake of the recent court case involving John Walker - a former Northumberland County Council social worker who successfully sought compensation for the loss of his career after two nervous breakdowns - both employers' and employees' organisations have been predicting a flood of similar claims. Coincidentally, a report by the Health & Safety Executive concludes that - while workplace fatalities are thankfully fewer than they were - stress levels among employees have increased sharply. Two recent surveys by Kleinwort Benson and Harris also blame work-related stress and job insecurity for the absence of that feelgood factor on which Tories are pinning their re-election hopes. One office worker in every two quizzed by Harris thinks that stress levels have worsened. The researchers conclude that Britain has `a white-collar workforce in which very many people are being pushed to the limits of their endurance'.
But here comes Professor David Warburton, an academic psychologist at Reading University, with the words of comfort. Warburton is founder of a body called Associates for Research Into the Science of Enjoyment (ARISE), which argues that a moment's relaxation with `a product of enjoyment' (ie, something naughty but nice) is what's needed to make people unwind. Alcohol, chocolate, coffee, cakes - anything goes, as long as it's legal and does the trick. `Products of enjoyment have an important part to play when people are under pressure. People are right to take time out with their favourite treat, and laboratory experience shows that this makes them more relaxed, calmer, and can in some cases improve performance,' says Warburton. This April ARISE will hold its fourth international conference, on the theme of `Living is more than surviving - the contribution of pleasure to everyday life', in (appropriately enough) Amsterdam.
Unfortunately, if predictably, the experts cannot agree. Professor Cary Cooper of the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, dismisses any notion of a quick fix. The work-related problems which cause stress need to be resolved, he says, not temporarily disguised. `Eating a bar of chocolate won't sort out an over-aggressive boss. You don't solve problems by drinking them away or doing relaxation exercises.' Cooper is close to the cases of other overstretched litigants who are following Walker's lead (including one relating to hospital doctors' working hours, which is due to come to court in the spring). `Industry doesn't yet understand what a landmark the Walker case is,' he believes. `Employers now have a duty of care over the management of people - not just a duty of care over health and safety issues regarding machinery and the like.'
Neither view will be welcome to hard-pressed managements, who must either face the prospect of more time-wasting coffee breaks (at the very least) or answer some awkward questions posed by the past few years of recession, re-engineering and redundancy. Incidentally, the award in favour of Walker could amount to more than £200,000. Does anyone feel in need of a large G&T?