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Friday, October 7, 2022

Succumbing to workplace stress? We’re now supposed to suffer in silence | Tim Adams

That indelible rogue civil service quote – “Arrogant and offensive. Can you imagine having to work with these truth twisters” – continues to do the rounds on the internet two years after it was first posted (and deleted) from the @UKCivilService account. The original post followed revelations about Dominic Cummings and Barnard Castle, but there has hardly been a day since when it hasn’t felt justified. One fan site, with 32,000 followers, is dedicated to reposting it twice a day, just to be sure.

The tweet – no one has discovered the source – seemed pertinent to that recent survey that showed escalating stress levels among MPs’ staff, with three-quarters suggesting their role was “emotionally draining” and a third describing it as “harrowing”. Those findings, which came as the government announced its brutal proposed cull of civil service jobs, reminded me of a correlation I discovered when researching a story on mental health: that the number of working days lost to “stress-related illness” in the UK – about 17m in 2021 – equated closely to the number of days lost annually to strike action in the first half of the 1980s. You might say that, as Margaret Thatcher designed, collective grievances in the workplace have been effectively privatised and outsourced to the individual.

Data never sleeps

Hazel Sutherland, of the National Portrait Gallery, watches the film David at the gallery in 2004.
Hazel Sutherland, of the National Portrait Gallery, watches the film David at the gallery in 2004. Photograph: Adam Butler/AP

The most peaceful sleep I’ve ever observed was that of David Beckham in Sam Taylor-Johnson’s film, David, of the footballer after a training session in Madrid in 2004. The gently lit film lasted nearly two hours, during which time Beckham, at the height of his fame, hardly stirred. Most of the time there seemed to be a slight smile playing around his lips. His hair never threatened bedhead. Watching that film it was hard not to imagine how lesser mortals’ slumbers – restless legs, teeth grinding – might look on an art gallery wall.

Most of us never see ourselves asleep and are happy to keep it that way. A new Google function, however, promises to analyse how decorous – or otherwise – are our nights. As well as collecting data on heartbeat and breathing patterns, the app will also employ “cough and snore monitoring” that might alert us, on waking, to “underlying pathologies”. Sweet dreams.

Compassion for cows

two cows
What’s life like from their point of view? Photograph: Jason Batterham 2/Alamy

The beef and dairy corporations have long tried to have us imagine their products in the abstract. The recent appetite for books and films about cattle makes that harder to achieve. There was Temple Grandin’s campaign to have us see the world as a cow might see it, in order to improve the care of livestock. “We’ve got to give those animals a decent life and we’ve got to give them a painless death. We owe the animal respect.”

That belief was at the heart of Cotswold farmer Rosamund Young’s surprise bestseller The Secret Life of Cows, which Alan Bennett credited with “changing the way I look at the world”. That sentiment will have been shared by anyone who sat mesmerised, as I did, through Andrea Arnold’s extraordinary documentary, Cow, based on several years filming the life of a single dairy animal in Kent.

A stampede of other books has appeared; the latest, Roger Morgan-Grenville’s Taking Stock, advocates far less intensive farming methods. The books and films are a reminder that empathy is a first step in changing behaviour. Once you know that cows have best friends, the herd instinct that demands factory farming is much easier to resist.

Tim Adams is an Observer columnist

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