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Stress, the Bane of Modern Life

illustration stress 02

© Rocco pour le Journal du CNRS

For some it is a spider’s web, for others, a tsunami. No matter the metaphor, there is one thing you can be sure of: Excessive stress1 is becoming increasingly present in our lives, both private and public, leaving in its wake an alarming number of bruised, broken, or even crushed lives. Whatever the age group or the institutions concerned (education, family, business, etc.), the statistics leave no room for doubt. In France, according to a recent study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, schoolchildren are more affected by stress than in any other industrial country. Concerning students, the results of a national survey carried out by the regional student associations in 2006, claimed that 43.6 % of students said they suffered from one of the three symptoms of depression: a feeling of sadness, a lack of self-confidence, or suicidal thoughts. Teenagers trying to deal with mental distress are often more prone to addiction (tobacco, cannabis, or alcohol). The picture isn’t much brighter for people in the workplace. According to the French Institute for action on stress (IFAS), excess stress at work affects over 32 % of women and 20 % of men.2 A worrying picture since experts predict that the number of sick leaves due to mental conditions will increase dramatically over the coming years.

So why is it that at the beginning of the 21st century, people around the world are under so much pressure? After all, the past centuries had more than their fair share of fears and misfortunes. Just think of the famines, the epidemics, the endless wars, or the fear of the devil and eternal damnation–all of which were considerably more anxiety-inducing than anything modern western societies have to deal with today.
For Alain Ehrenberg, director of CESAMES,3 a specialized research center investigating these issues, the key context that accounts for the dramatic increase in mental and social distress that has affected us over the past three or four decades is the individualization of the human condition. This is a decisive cutoff point, a change in the hierarchy of values and norms, the consequence of which is a radical transformation of the status of the individual. “My hypothesis is that, as values of ‘self-ownership’ (i.e., the considerable increase in the moral possibilities of being able to choose one’s own ‘life style’), of personal accomplishment, and of personal initiative have gradually become rooted in contemporary societies, a new type of ‘social being’ has emerged. A ‘social being’ who, admittedly, is still required to be disciplined and obedient, but is also required to decide and act on his own in regards to everything in his life, whether it be work, life as a couple, education, health, etc.”4
In other words, “the move to widespread emancipation which got under way in the 1960s,” reinforced by the increasing importance of words like “change,” “competition,” “initiative,” “efficiency,” “uncertainty,” etc., in everyday language during the 1980s, has resulted in giving “the impression that every individual, regarded as an autonomous whole, is entirely responsible for his own existence. This extension of the ‘boundaries of the self,’ or this ‘totemization of the self’–to paraphrase Claude Lévi-Strauss–has led to a decline in irresponsibility and, as a consequence, to a rise in personal insecurity.”


© Tokyo Space Club/Corbis

Overwork can lead to physiological and psychological burnout. The japanese even have a specific word, "Karoshi", to designate death by overwork.

As a result, a freer yet more vulnerable “I” has partly taken the place of the “we” of yesteryear, which was more restrictive, but also more reassuring. Daily life at the time was no more pleasant than it is today, but the existence of time-honored solidarities, of rituals that acted as an outlet for emotions, or of shared environments that allowed people to take root in various ways, all helped consolidate social bonds and reduce to minimal proportions the random, precarious, and uncertain aspects of existence. In a world where the individual nature of everyday life compels the subject to construct, control, and optimize his own history, confusion, loneliness, precariousness, uncertainty about the future, and mental distress take on unprecedented importance, according to Michel Joubert, at CESAMES. “This is a phenomenon aggravated by the near-disappearance of political utopias and by the failure of the institutions that provide people with something to believe in (religion, country, family, etc.), which used to act as efficient psychological and behavioral airbags. Our culture permanently reminds people that they have the formal freedom to choose their own way of life, while at the same time requiring them to behave like the efficient, developed, healthy, faultless individuals that they are expected to be, on every level, and from the time they start school. From then on, each person is accountable for his own health and destiny, and such an individualistic process can have an oppressive and destructive effect on those who are the least able to stand up to such a dramatic change.” On the moral level, social status inequality is thus compounded by lowered self-esteem. Hence the rash of body shrines, “salvation goods” and coaching and self-help books, that promise you a perfect body and a sound mind, and will help you change all aspects of your life, ranging from work to appearance, love life to interior decoration, or even eating habits to general culture. All of these have the sole objective of keeping the troops’ morale, immunizing their bodies and minds against the damaging effects of inordinate stress.

If there’s one area where stress has its stronghold, it’s in the workplace. “All comparisons with other countries show that the workforce in France is–of all the industrial countries–one of the most involved and motivated by their work,” says Alain d’Iribarne, president of the Scientific board of the Observatory of quality of working life (ACTINEO). “For every criticism you hear about work, you also hear other statements about work being a source of satisfaction, pleasure, or even happiness.” Similarly, it’s hard to deny that working facilities and their environments have improved considerably over the years, due both to the transformation of economic activity and to urban renewal and development. Factories and workshops which were often decrepit have closed, while new factories are constantly being built.” In fact, planners and equipment manufacturers “compete with each other to offer their customers workspaces that are pleasant and, at the very least, functional.” Furthermore, new technologies (mobile phones, internet connections, etc.) have made schedules more flexible, and allowed workers to “better adapt their life to their working activity.” Yet things aren’t as straightforward. Having abandoned taylorism,5 which used to have a stultifying effect on workers due to its high work rate and tedious nature, many experts in the 1980s were convinced that the tertiarization of the economy–which on the face of it is more adapted to human nature–would considerably reduce distress in the workplace. But in fact, the exact opposite occurred. Because of globalization and fierce economic competition, the workplace has become an increasingly oppressive jungle coupled with a continually changing environment that forces workers to be constantly efficient and competitive.

In order to describe the new forms of work organization, Bernard Andrieu, from the Accorps laboratory,6 has drawn up a list of the major distress-provoking factors. These include the race to grab market share, the harsh shareholder-induced company restructuring, the struggle to reduce production costs, the obsession with profitability and increasing turnover, the use of war and sport metaphors by management, the competition between teams, ever faster job rotation in the name of mobility, and the fragmentation and extreme accountability of tasks. For Andrieu, the latter “leaves the worker stuck in partial production without having his overall capabilities really taken into account in the decision-making and production process.” He is convinced that this new type of organization “endangers emotional integrity, increases relational insecurity due to the destruction of habitus,7 and destroys self-esteem, relations with others, and the energy of the social group.” There can be no doubt that some changes, like the regular extension of performance constraints, have badly affected “many employees with a long work experience, especially in companies that were highly protected, because they were only subjected to limited competition,” agrees d’Iribarne. In a more unstable environment, traditional workers–who feel comfortable with the efficiency of their routines and are completely in phase with a stable environment–can feel unhappy. They see their familiar reassuring landmarks called into question, and, above all, they fear for the future.” So what about the reduction of the French working week to 35 hours? Hasn’t everyone gained more free time that they can use to unwind? Well, almost everyone. But for the managers who were already stressed out trying to achieve their objectives, the effect is just the opposite. And that’s because the objectives haven’t changed. As d’Iribarne puts it, “the same things still have to be done, they just have less time to do it.”

Some people, not able to cope with this extreme pressure, end up paying the ultimate price. Whether through physiological burn-out, leading to heart-attacks and strokes, or a psychological one, leading to depression and suicide, overwork can kill. Japan and China even have a word for death by overwork, “karoshi” and “guolaosi,” respectively. In Japan, death by overwork has now been recognized as an official occupational disease. A worker would qualify, after death, if he had worked more than 80 hours of overtime a month, whereas less than 45 hours a month of overtime would be considered weak evidence.
Many scientific studies have pointed to a direct link between heart disease or high blood pressure and overwork. Similarly, workers with heavy working constraints are more inclined to suffer from depression. Examples of workers who committed suicide at their workplace abound. They account for 3 to 5 % of total workplace fatalities, and this number is similar in the western countries where it was evaluated.
In France, the PSA group has started an investigation among 3000 employees after a series of 6 suicides, 5 of which occurred at its plant in Mulhouse. “Establishing an objective connection between suicide and work is always a delicate matter,” Andrieu points out. Yet the fact that workers are now committing suicide at their place of work is a new phenomenon. They are using their bodies to send a message, to point the finger at their employer and denounce both the increase in pressure to which they have been subjected, and those who are responsible for their problems. These problems become so unbearable that they are unable to see a way out.


© BEP/F. Destoc/Le télégramme/MAXPPP

Some companies are calling on the services of massage therapists to reduce their staff's stress levels.

As a reaction to work-related pressure, many workers no longer see pursuing a career as the Holy Grail. Many of them accept to earn less if they can go home earlier in the evening, and they rate emotional happiness and a good way of life as more important than being promoted.
Admittedly, a few companies are at long last acknowledging the intense stress on their workforce. They organize seminars on “detecting sensitive situations,” set up psychological hotlines, call on the services of massage therapists who work on site, and so on. Although well-intentioned, these minor measures, more preventive than curative, are far from being enough,” says Andrieu. “What is needed is to make work meaningful again. Workers should have more insight on why they are asked to do something and how this will contribute to the performance of the company, rather than being bombarded with orders, information and objectives sometimes contrary to their personal values and whose logic often escapes them. Such management would increase self-esteem and motivation, rather than stress.”

With the reign of individual identity and compulsory self-confidence, stress is no longer confined to the workplace but also invades private life. Scarcely any area of human existence escapes its pervasive presence. Not even health. “Constantly reminded that they have freedom to choose, but at the same time urged to show themselves as the efficient, forever young, and cheerful individuals that they are expected to be, everyone is henceforth responsible for their own health. When diagnosed with cancer, for example, some might believe that it’s due to bad eating habits or lack of exercise,” explain psychoanalyst Roland Gori8 and philosopher Pierre Le Coz9 in their book “L’empire des coachs” (The reign of the coach),10 where they denounce these “new directors of conscience.” Stress is setting off alarms in all areas of life: physical appearance dictated by fashion, advertising, and the media; amateur sports obsessed with performance; the difficulty that many women have in juggling the time they spend at work and as mothers. And, as people try to live up to these standards, they very often drift into everything from cosmetic surgery to drug usage.
Finally, are children protected from this modern plague? And does the school system do everything it can to protect schoolchildren against stress? At least in France, not all educational specialists agree on the matter. This is no small concern, since stress can be stimulating and even galvanizing in moderate doses, but counter-productive when it becomes uncontrollable. Between the parents, worried about their offspring’s future from the start of nursery school, the overloaded and ill-conceived syllabuses, and the teachers, trying to navigate between necessary strictness and rigor, and required encouragement, school has also become a stress-ridden place. Yet it could also be the ideal location to start alleviating stress, and better prepare the future generations to cope with this plague of modern life.
Philippe Testard-Vaillant

Studying stress
Launched at the initiative of CNRS and backed by Inserm and the Ministry of Health and Solidarity, the “Biomedical sciences, health’ and society” program (SBMSS) brought together between 2002 and 2006 an impressive number of researchers including biologists, psychiatrists, psychologists, epidemiologists, public health doctors, historians, sociologists, anthropologists, political scientists, and economists. Stress research was selected as one of its priorities. According to program leader Martine Bungener, director of CERMES,1 “this program was particularly intended to see how useful multidisciplinary approaches would be, bringing together life sciences, humanities, and social sciences. Stress was a very good example of an area of research that raised questions that were at the same time biological, epidemiological, and social.” For example, epidemiology looks at stress when it examines the influence of psychological and social factors on the physical and mental health of target populations. Psychology, on the other hand, sees it as a subjective reaction to a certain amount of environmental stress. Yet “stress is also as much a matter for anthropological and/or sociological study,” adds Bungener, pointing out that three projects on prenatal stress, post-traumatic stress, and everyday stress in the urban environment, were funded as part of the SBMSS program.
1. Centre de recherche médecine, science, santé et société (CNRS / Inserm / EHESS / Université Paris-XI).
Contact : Martine Bungener,

Notes :

1. A level of stress that places people at risk, in other words that is likely to promote the appearance of physical or mental pathologies.
2. Lionel Steinmann, “Stress au travail: les faits et chiffres,” Enjeux Les échos, 198: 68-72. 2004.
3. Centre de Recherche Psychotropes, Santé Mentale, Société (CNRS / Inserm / Université Paris-V).
4. Quotations taken from 'La santé mentale' ('Mental health'), in Cahiers français, n° 324. Janvier-février 2005.
5. Named after its creator Fred W. Taylor and based on division of labor, Taylorism was a system of work organization aimed at increasing factory productivity.
6. Action, cultures et corporéités (CNRS / Université Nancy-II).
7. In sociology, habitus designates the set of patterns of thoughts, behavior, and taste acquired as a result of internalization of culture and objective social structure.
8. Professor of psychopathology at the university of Aix-Marseille-I.
9. Member of the French advisory committee on ethics.
10. Edition Albin Michel, 197 pages, 2006.

Contacts :

Alain Ehrenberg,

Michel Joubert,

Alain d'Iribarne,

Bernard Andrieu,


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