Thursday, 15 January 2015

We need to talk about stress and anxiety


Are you stressed? Well, yes, you probably are. The little green blinking light of your smartphone as it sits on your bedside table tells you that you have email in the middle of the night; your Twitter, Facebook, Blogger and Amazon accounts are probably all crowding your head; your ever-rising aspirations to build a new kitchen and new bathroom are probably pushing you to plan the schematics even as you try (and fail) to keep up with the demands on your screen-based, online, heavily digitised time. It's a plague - and it's getting worse, with a new thinktank report estimating the losses to the economy at over £100bn a year.

The most tragic element is that large numbers of young people - one in ten, in one recent estimate - are just too anxious to go out at all. Many of them are used to being ferried around by their parents in people carriers, of course, from one 'playdate' or party to another, from a very early age. Time outside has become more limited and less natural as the years have gone by, for all sorts of reasons. But they're hand-wringingly pained, self-conscious, worried and stressed as well, and that should trigger a different order of concern.

Now we can do all this in what you might call a micropersonal format. We can take up jogging and the gym (good), yoga (possibly better), football, music - you name it. And we can avail ourselves of the latest 'mindfulness' craze for modern meditation, downloading and paying for Headspace or some other online variant of 'breathe and feel' downtime engines. There's science behind them, don't you know.

All that will make you feel a bit, and possibly a lot, better - though just chilling out and kicking back with your friends will help you, too.

But there's more here. The tidal wave of anxiety that faces us needs collective public policy decisions as well as the balm of individual's calming efforts. We know this, of course, because the UK Government has been introducing 'family friendly' policies under both Labour and the Coalition that do go some way towards helping - we're about to launch out onto a new shared maternity and paternity pay scheme that will give families more time, and more flexibility, when they've got a baby at home. So far, so good. The present administration's much-mocked 'quality of life' index (along with all the others available) does help to some extent as well (or it would, if Ministers listened to what it was really telling them).

But where to begin with more changes? A school system that didn't reintroduce selection by the back door, and split siblings up across schools and cities, would do for a start - and help prevent parents becoming more and more frazzled as they shuttle their children through a many-miles-long round trip every morning. But major changes to the way we work should be placed front and centre, as Michael Orton, of Warwick University and the thinktank Compass, has recently been arguing. A more holistic, supportive and democratic social security system, that both supported people into work and gave them some sort of say over both their treatment and others', would be another progressive step. To be honest, anything would be better than Universal Credit and the Work Capability Assessment, but inclusiveness and tolerance would be a better guide to policy than the present hate-my-neighbour beastliness. More decent, fairer pay at the bottom of the income scale, and more job security? Thank you very much, that'd do nicely too.

The bottom line? We need to talk about stress a lot more, and then we need to do something about it. And we need to hurry up.

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