Stress: Standing’s Eight Giants

Stress: Standing’s Eight Giants

In this series Luke explores the Eight Modern Giants introduced by Economist Guy Standing in his recent report Basic Income as Common Dividends. This article looks at stress and the tangible threat it poses to our well-being and ability to have a healthy, productive life.

Luke Brotherdale-Smith, Citizen’s Basic Income Network Scotland Volunteer

Standing’s third ‘giant’ is Stress. Most of us are no stranger to the feeling of stress, be it for sitting an exam, running late for something or hitting a deadline, but it does seem like an increasingly prevalent and noticeable issue in society. With the UK being one of the richest countries on earth – and all the technological development that goes with that –it seems bizarre that stress grips more and more people. Despite us growing and supposedly improving as an economy, we’ve managed to effectively create jobs and environments which are bad for human beings’ health. Whilst many elements of our society attribute to rising stress levels, Standing points to insecurity, debt and inequality as compounding existing stress to dangerous and debilitating levels.

We all know what stress feels like, we’re even told its supposedly good for us. Stress is almost used as a badge of honour: ‘god, I was so stressed last week’, ‘I never stopped’ and so on. Our culture almost fetishises and encourages it, with stress and exhaustion seemingly proving your worth. But why should we see stress as one of the eight ‘giants’ threatening modern Britain? Firstly, there are the physical effects of being stressed. When you are stressed your heart beats faster, you breathe quicker and your muscles begin preparing for ‘fight or flight’. And that’s all good and normal survival stuff. But the physical health risks begin when stress is sustained or frequently felt, because your body remains in this state of readiness. When your heart is beating and oxygen flowing at heightened rates for prolonged periods there is an increased susceptibility to heart disease. Other consequences of high stress levels are a weakened immune system and respiratory infections due to the over strain your body suffers. Of course there are also further, indirect, effects of stress, often seen in how people try to cope with it. Be it comfort-eating, drinking or smoking, people’s go to, short-term ways of dealing with stress are often incredibly unhealthy for the body too. Don’t get me wrong, I love a pint of bitter as much as the next 65 year old bloke and when I get stressed I hit the biscuit tin big time. But when the frequent strain on the body caused by stress is exacerbated by a load of alcohol or sugary food, you’re putting your health at serious risk.

Stress is basically the feeling of being overwhelmed or unable to cope and our non-stop, 24/7, capitalist society is the perfect storm for creating huge levels of stress. It is no wonder, with the feeling of time being squeezed and of not being able to switch off, that there is a stress epidemic. This plays a substantial part in the growing concerns over mental health in the UK. Stress has been shown to link to mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression. In 2017 stress was responsible for 37% of all work-related ill-health cases and 45% of all working days lost. So, far from stress being a reflection of hard work, it actually hinders work. But more important are the effects it has on human well-being. If you were to choose to take time off or work part-time for the sake of your mental health there is a stigma, you are lazy, a ‘snowflake’ and ‘don’t understand the meaning of the word work’. Neoliberalism conditions us to believe stress and anxiety are prices worth paying to make money and to ‘earn a living’: a Basic Income calls these entire assumptions into question.

In 2017 stress was responsible for 37% of all work-related ill-health cases and 45% of all working days lost.

We know that stress effects everyone, its pretty non-discriminatory and irrelevant of how much money you earn or land you own, you are still vulnerable to feeling stressed. But what about the abundance of people whose existing worries of life are compounded by the anxiety of debt and insecurity? Guy Standing talks about stress being greatly heightened by money worries, be that worries over when the next pay cheque is coming, when you’re next getting called into work or worries about paying off debt. Some fascinating (and equally troubling) studies have shown that stress caused by money worries can ‘narrow people’s mental bandwidth’ and reduce short term IQ. Like internet bandwidth, mental bandwidth is limited and only able to operate a certain number of tasks whilst still functioning effectively. So as you’ll know, when you’re watching Youtube, listening to Spotify and downloading the latest Football Manager simultaneously, in the short-run your computer may slow down and run less effectively. The exact same thing happens for the human mind. If you suffer from the common stresses of life, and then have the added anxiety of income insecurity and debt, you can understand how this slows down the functions of the mind.

Now imagine you’re a human suffering from the typical stresses of existence, plus the anxiety of income insecurity, your mental bandwidth is pretty damn narrow. You are then impacted by an illness or disability of some sort and you can only work half as much. You need to claim Employment Support Allowance (ESA – benefits for those with work-limiting impairments). But in order to access these benefits, you have to be continually tested and have to fill in a load of paper work. (Form PW1 to be exact: I challenge you to look through it and not feel stressed). And then after this, in order to actually earn your benefits, you may have to undertake work focussed interviews and ‘work-related activity’. In short, the entire system is going to stress you out. Rather than providing the most frictionless support to the most vulnerable we throw them into a system of complexity and conditionality, only perpetuating mental health struggles. Just picture yourself in that position for a second. Are you surprised a study for the NHS found 43% of ESA claimants had attempted suicide, compared with 7% of other adults? The complexity, conditionality and uncertainty of the ESA policy obviously worsens suicidal tendencies and yet the government has persisted with it. You can see the system is inhumane and exacerbates the existing stresses of low-income living (and this is before getting onto the thousands of people who have died after being deemed ‘fit for work’).

Rather than providing the most frictionless support to the most vulnerable we throw them into a system of complexity and conditionality, only perpetuating mental health struggles.

We’ve discussed how insecurity and debt can catalyse existing anxieties and create great stress for low income earners, but what does Standing mean when he talks about inequality causing stress? Well this is a bit of an abstract idea, but one worth considering nonetheless, and it centres around social anxiety and status symbols. Put simply, in the capitalist societies we are often judged less on who we are as people and more on what we own and what we do (see Donald Trump). People with loads of money don’t quietly go about their business investing it, saving it or donating it to charities. Oh no. People buy expensive branded clothes, large cars and unnecessary luxuries in order to show people they are rich. These so called ‘status symbols’ may not be a conscious action wherein people make the decision to buy those Nike Air Max trainers or an Armani whatever. But because we are bombarded with relentless adverts and conditioned to believe you need those Adidas trackies to fit in and keep up it’s an easy way of classifying who is and is not monied. But how does this fit in with inequality and stress? In essence, because our society is both so materialistic and greatly unequal, there is enhanced social anxiety and pressure to wear the right clothes, drive the right car and so on. There is strong evidence in a range of studies which show the more unequal a society, the more prevalent this status anxiety is. The more hierarchical society is, the stronger the idea that people are ranked according to inherent differences in worth or value, which leads not just to a relentless drive for more but also a desire to distance yourself from those below you in the social hierarchy. Again this does not have to be a fully conscious operation, but just think about how we label people ‘chavs’ and try to raise ourselves above our fellow human being. In short, displayed wealth is seen as a measure of inner worth, and as inequality makes social positions more visible, the more we judge people by status. Insecurity about self-worth heightens stress greatly.

I completely appreciate you may read that and think its a load of “pseudo-science bullshit” (a word for word response from a skeptical friend whom I explained these studies to). It is quite shocking to comprehend how much our environment, culture, society and economy massively impact us physically and mentally but the evidence is pretty overwhelming. Of all the OECD countries, there are only two whose life expectancies are actually falling and that is the UK and the USA (the two most unequal of the G7). Am I attributing that reality solely to inequality and the effects of status anxiety? Absolutely not, but I do believe that bottomless consumerism and capitalism’s relentlessness interacts with and heightens our insecurities, anxieties and stresses – all of which aren’t great for your well-being. You may point, for example, to obesity related illness being a cause of declining life expectancy in wealthy countries like the USA and UK. But evidence points to stress, including increased anxiety due to inequality, being a key reason for binge eating and reaching for comfort foods high in sugars and fats. Equally, the average American child in the 1980s reported more anxiety than child psychiatric patient in the 1950s – a period when inequality rocketed and social cohesion declined. You could comment on increased awareness or whatever you like, but as our society becomes more unequal and stress related mental health issues grow and grow, we will eventually run out of other explanations to hide behind.

Of all the OECD countries, there are only two whose life expectancies are actually falling and that is the UK and the USA (the two most unequal of the G7).

I hope that has all provided a little insight and made some sense of the stress epidemic we are suffering from in capitalist societies. Our workaholic culture, increased debt and insecurity and social anxieties due to inequality all contribute to stress – which is a gateway to poor mental and physical health. Add to these universal drivers of stress, uncertain income and a benefit system which punishes the most vulnerable, and we begin to understand how a country having all the wealth and power in the world doesn’t mean that people are happy.

For me, this is probably the single biggest reason I’m such an advocate of the Basic Income, why on a sunny Tuesday evening I’m sat writing this and (hopefully) raising a bit of awareness/interest/understanding. Human well-being. A Basic Income is a tool to promote the well-being of human beings, reducing this stress, removing the uncertainty and insecurities. Take a step back and observe the diversity and miracles of human life and its long history. We are pretty damn amazing – yet we choose to constrain everything we do due to economic boundaries and systemic limitations… It’s astounding how effectively we have designed systems and policies which make people physically and mentally unwell and justify it in terms of profit, economic growth and GDP. An alternative to this, a Basic Income provides a platform, a guarantee without conditions, without sanctions that will remove so much stress from people’s lives. Not just the most vulnerable, but everyone will feel the psychological benefits of a Basic Income. It’s almost a ticket to ride, what Presidental candidate Andrew Yang calls a ‘freedom dividend’. It gives you freedom to quit that exploitative job, leave your abusive husband and no longer worry about paying for your child’s lunch. 

Plenty of you reading this will (somewhat fairly) question what evidence there is for these claims of a Basic Income being so much better for human well-being. But when you analyse the large numbers of pilots of a Basic Income or similar schemes, there are huge signs of improved mental health and well-being. A much discussed Basic Income pilot in Finland demonstrated a positive effect on people’s mental health, with depression being reported to have fallen by 37% in the group receiving the income. We have a policy and scheme that could have such a powerful effect on people’s well-being , and surely that should always be the main purpose of social security. Similarly, despite only being a few months long due to a new government pulling the plug, the Ontario pilot of a scheme similar to a Basic Income saw 88% of recipients report being less stressed. That is no small number. You may argue the shortness of the pilot undermines the use of any evidence gained, as you can’t see the long term effects. However, such a dramatic decrease in such a short amount of time only emphasises the power of Basic Income.

These small pilots provide a glimpse of the impact a Basic Income will have on putting people back in control of their lives and their time, offering security and safety. Rather than our lives being driven by fear of getting work or fear of meeting the conditions for benefits, we can be motivated by our aspirations and hopes, knowing we have a secure platform. It seems the Basic Income can shift our entire understanding of how society should function, and it could see a shift away from non-stop consumerism and all the stress that comes with it. And what would happen if people had this guaranteed income? What would happen if the burden of precarious work and the anxiety of a cruel benefits system were lifted? People would become less stressed, their mental health would improve markedly. More than that, the eradication of this financial stress would see people’s physical heath improve too. Healthier people will mean reduced NHS costs and increases in people’s productivity as they undertake work they are positively motivated to do. A Basic Income is an investment, and it’s highly possible that the spillover effects will save money so (over time) it will pay for itself. More importantly though, Basic Income is a compassionate and humane policy that is actually good for people, not just good for the economy. Just imagine that.

This blog is one of a series looking at Guy Standing’s recently published report, written for the Shadow Chancellor, ‘Basic Income as a Common Dividends’. Influenced of course by Beveridge, Standing reflects on the eight modern giants he sees as stalking modern Britain. He comments on how these giants are having a protracted negative effect on society as well as the economy, and how a Basic Income can be a key tool in combatting the growing challenges these giants pose. In the next few weeks, we will be releasing a series of articles analysing Standing’s eight giants and delving further into how the Basic Income can (and will) combat them.

The giants are inequality, insecurity, debt, stress, precarity, automation, ecological crises and the rise of neo-fascism and the far right

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