Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 28 December 2014

There's a danger we're becoming a sappy, fragile lot

'Workplace stress makes us fat and wrinkly and depressed and bad-tempered. And, if it gets intense enough, it can even kill us. Or so we're told.'
'Workplace stress makes us fat and wrinkly and depressed and bad-tempered. And, if it gets intense enough, it can even kill us. Or so we're told.'

How are you feeling today, pet? A bit weak and wobbly? Rather fragile? Awww, diddums. You need a hug. And perhaps a little Diazepam.

It seems that we are in the grip of an epidemic of stress. From schoolchildren to university professors, from nurses to binmen, we're tortured by unprecedented feelings of inadequacy, uncertainty and pressure to perform.

Workplace stress makes us fat and wrinkly and depressed and bad-tempered. And, if it gets intense enough, it can even kill us. Or so we're told.

Honestly, it's a miracle anybody can summon up sufficient stamina to totter out the front door in the mornings without immediately dissolving into a soggy, wailing heap on the pavement at the thought – the very thought – of the terrible trials of the day ahead.

At this rate, we'll need to employ 'transition counsellors' just to help us make it from coffee-break to lunchtime. If you get through to 5pm you can justifiably call yourself a survivor.

As if further evidence of this plague of sappy spinelessness were needed, now it's emerged that council staff in Northern Ireland are being offered counselling to help them deal with the upheaval caused by the realignment of local government.

They are to be offered classes in something called "emotional resilience" – paid for by councils at £60-a-pop, which potentially translates into an overall bill of tens of thousands – so they can manage the change in work patterns when the current 26 councils become 11 new authorities.

This, according to obscure body the Local Government Training Group, will enable workers to "operate with resolve and continuing determination in challenging and changing circumstances".

Ulster Unionist Tom Elliott called this "mumbo-jumbo" and I fear the plain-talking Fermanagh farmer is right.

How did we get to the stage where the ordinary challenges of life are now regarded as insurmountable hurdles that can only be overcome with special counselling and support?

Of course, I'm not talking about real trauma, or real victims. There are plenty of people living in Northern Ireland who know all too well what that means and the pain and havoc it can bring.

No, I'm talking about the random, everyday hurdles that life throws up from time to time; the regular provocations, irritations, or misfortunes that few of us can avoid.

The expected response to this kind of situation appears to be a tear-streaked meltdown which can only be remedied by calling in the stress paramedics, sirens wailing as they rush to the scene of yet another messy emotional collapse. What happened to the old values of stoicism and fortitude? What happened to putting your head down and blattering on through?

The stiff upper lip has long been replaced by a quivering lower lip, ready to blub.

We may no longer be quite so repressed and emotionally stunted, which is a good thing, but now it seems we've gone too far the other way. Watch out, we're jellifying.

Let's remember that these fortunate council employees aren't losing their jobs, they're just adapting to new ways of working. They don't need to be propped up by solicitous counsellors, telling them how to breathe deeply, or where to find their internal Paulo Coelho. In treating people as delicate flowers, essentially vulnerable and easily damaged, society teaches them to expect to be traumatised by the normal experiences of life and to expect the state, or other institutions, to step in and pick up the pieces.

This means that we not only diminish and undervalue our own ability to cope, we also cede a remarkable amount of control over our inner lives to professional advisers, who are licensed to determine which feelings are appropriate and which are not. And that is a profoundly disquieting thought.

While there's nothing wrong in seeking therapeutic help when you need it, most of us are a lot less dependent and a lot more capable than we realise. Emotional resilience is not something you can be taught in a one-day course, like how to design a spreadsheet. It's a complex quality that comes from a private, highly individual mixture of self-knowledge, self-belief and life experience.

Much better give the council workers sixty quid and let them do what they want with it, rather than expecting them to spend a day toughening up their innards.

And, when the time comes for the big change, you know what? I think they'll cope.

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