Is stress the “black plague” of the 21st century?

In a 2007 group interview, organizational psychologist Cary Cooper, a leading authority on workplace stress, opined that stress is the “black plague” of our times. He added:

I see stress as the main source of disease or the trigger for disease in the 21st century developed world.

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We know stress is a major risk factor for a range of illness from heart disease to immune failures and more and more research is being done on cancer now.

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Now that jobs are intrinsically more insecure for everybody – from shop floor to top floor, guess what – the illnesses – stress related illnesses are going up the hierarchy. So now nobody’s safe.

Cooper gave the interview in 2007, before the economic meltdown. Even then, he noted that stress is bad for public health. It’s running up and down the organizational chart. And it is a by-product of the developed world that many of us have chosen to embrace.

In searching for silver linings in the current economic mess we’re in, perhaps a reassessment of how we live and work — with an eye toward psychologically healthier practices — will lead us to something better.

In centuries past, a plague would simply run its course, leaving devastation in its wake. Will we be more pro-active and harness all that we know about people and organizations to stop the plague of stress in its tracks?

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Hat tip to Dianne Wilkinson for the interview link.

3 responses

  1. Excellent question, David. In his classic textbook “Human Motivation,” Dr. Robert Franken points out that stresses are not the problem: how we react to stresses can make all the difference to our mental and physical health. First he differentiates between good “eustress” and bad “distress.” If you jump out of an airplane because you have to, you would have distress. If you jump out for fun, you would have eustress. If a parachutist jumped out of a burning plane, she would probably be ecstatic!

    Also, the physical stress response comes in three waves. The first, the classic initial “fight-or-flight” response, releases one set of hormones that dissipate after 10 seconds if no threat is identified. If the FoF response continues, a second set is released. It lasts 15 minutes to an hour and releases the hormones that are linked to health problems.

    So if we can change our relationship to stress–letting go of anger within 10 seconds, accepting work problems as normal–we can do much to prevent the plague in our own lives. That, in turn, should reduce the tendency to spread it in those around us.

  2. Pingback: Stressed out at work? Take a deep breath « Minding the Workplace

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