Stress from work or from being made redundant.

Will this be a recession with depression?

In a period of economic uncertainty around work and loss of work, levels of stress may be reaching an all time high.

Can we understand more about stress today by looking to the past?

The Centre for Medical History at the University of Exeter has recently embarked on a four year project funded by a Wellcome Trust Programme Grant to develop a critical history of stress. Researchers have located several parallels in history similar to the current financial disaster. It may provide a key to understanding stress and whether the recession is going to lead into an epidemic.

The 1930’s was a key period for ideas about stress as it was an era of mass unemployment with the onset of financial ruin shaped by the Wall Street Crash and followed by the Great Depression. Similar to the present situation there was massive personal stress and trauma developing as a reaction to global events. The end of the 1930’s saw a global economic and political crisis and war was lurking. This was the time that clinical therapists like Hans Selye and others began to suggest that environmental pressures could result in a range of physical and mental health disorders. Although the impact of stress on mental health had been recognised by psychiatrists from the late nineteenth century it was not until the1930’s that clinical therapists first started to recognise stress as a condition.

Today stress seems to be everywhere. Stress has been identified by the Health and Safety Council as the single most important factor in people taking time off work. This research may prove to be a valuable exercise to see what lessons can be learnt from history.

Professor Joseph Melling explains what can be understood from this alignment with history, he said ‘Every historical period is different and every age seeks to explain its own difficulties and disorders in different ways. In the 1930s management thinkers and industrial psychologists began to explore the nature of worker satisfaction by interviewing them about their attitudes to working life. Once again people are talking about stress as we enter a new and deep recession. My research shows that much of our discussions about stress need to be understood as a social and historical, rather than a clinical process. Stress has become a catch-all term for different complex experiences and we need to handle such debates with real care to avoid suggesting we are entering a pandemic of stress.’

The research team will examine the history of laboratory and clinical studies of stress and the emergence of stress as an occupational disease, as well as popular understandings and experiences of stress.

A programme of public lectures will form an important part of the project, involving experts in the field. All lectures will begin at 5pm and will be followed by a discussion at the University. The distinguished scholar, Cary Cooper CBE Professor of Organisational Psychology and Health at Lancaster University will be starting this year’s lecture series on Tuesday 17 March. For further information, contact

Date: 12 March 2009

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