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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: De l’usage du concept de stress

by Patrick Coupechoux

The Use of the Concept of Stress

Work in all it’s Aspects. Point of View.

Translated Monday 13 July 2009, by Helen Robertshaw and reviewed by Bill Scoble

La Déprime des opprimés. Enquête sur la souffrance psychique en France. Éditions du Seuil, 2009.

Words are never neutral. Therefore, the insistence in public discourse – by politicians, journalists, company managers, consultants and experts – on the term “stress” owes nothing to chance, even if it seems totally inoffensive now that it has become such a part of everyday language. People are tense and anxious? It’s because they’re stressed. They commit suicide at work? It’s for the same reason.

They therefore have to learn how to control this stress; better still, they need to know how to turn good stress to their advantage, enabling them to summon all their skills and increase their efficiency. Moreover, there’s a wealth of literature on the topic to help them achieve this. We can see why there is an eagerness to use this blanket term: it makes it possible to deflect the responsibility for one’s problems and the need to confront them back onto the individual alone.

For further proof, we need only look at the “official” definitions of the concept. The European Agency for Safety and Health at Work explains, for example, that, “a state of stress occurs when there is an imbalance between the perception people have of the pressures imposed by their environment and the perception they have of their own capacity to deal with this”. The situation is clear: a person’s environment imposes pressures and the individual has to confront them.

Running through this is a very neoliberal concept of the individual who is defined as living in an environment over which he has no control. There is thus no chance of him questioning this environment – including the market – or imagining the possibility of changing it. In other words, this environment constitutes a sort of unchanging, almost divine entity, and people must somehow live with and adjust to it, or perish.

Stress also has the advantage of appearing as an indisputable scientific term. It belongs to the language of biologists and psychologists and therefore to the realm of hard science. When we use a scientific concept, we remove pathos and emotions. So experts thus claim that this guarantees a rigorous and neutral approach. In other words, a book about cancer deals with cancer, not the suffering it causes. Since it belongs to the scientific field, stress is a matter for scientists alone, and is therefore not accessible to just any staff member. This makes it possible to sidestep the political and social debate and “medicalise” the problem: if they can’t manage to control their stress, employees must consult a doctor or therapist.

On the other hand, the term “suffering” is rejected by major experts, because it refers to the lived experience of individuals, their subjectivity, and the world in which they live. Behind this is the negation of the subject, of his personality, his history and uniqueness. The neoliberal system is only concerned with the formatted individual of the marketplace, the “economic man”, who is useful, productive and a good consumer, motivated by his own interests alone, involved in “win-win” contractual relationships even in his private life, who manages his life like financial capital and is alone accountable for his actions, failures and successes: the long-term unemployed person only has himself to blame, and if he isn’t capable of adapting, he is logically excluded.

Indeed, the popularity of the word stress is in line with a movement which aims to “pathologise" suffering in the workplace, thus trivialising it. It’s a matter of turning it into an individual “problem” like any other – and a matter for experts, with its concepts, language and rites –, and so disassociating it from the conditions which give rise to it: the organisation of work and, above all, the meaning and finality of it; the isolation of and competition between individuals; the destruction of unions which, in the past, were a means of defence against the suffering caused by work. If we don’t politicise this question – by asking ourselves: what kind of society do we want to live in? –, the system will continue to produce depressive and suicidal people. And this in a climate of broad indifference only tinged with compassion for the poor “victims”.

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