Jayne Dowle: Am I really stressed or just a bit on the busy side?

OH no. I’m stressed. I said I would write this column about stress, and now I find I’ve missed the deadline. Apparently, last Wednesday was National Stress Awareness day.

Help. I should have done it last week. My editor is not going to be happy. I am going to look silly. I can’t do anything else, it’s too late. Now I’m really stressed. I feel sick.

Actually, I don’t. It’s not the end of the world. These things happen. I’ve still got things to say. And the whole point of doing it was to talk about António Horta-Osório, the head of Lloyds Banking Group, who has announced he is taking time off from his uber-high-flying job because he is suffering from “extreme fatigue”.

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Stress, in other words. So, hey, the big event was last week. So what? It’s over. Forget about it. Move on. Don’t get stressed about National Stress Awareness Day.

For if it’s what one thing I have learnt, it is not to be stressed about stress. I won’t bore you I hope – there is nothing as dull as someone’s else’s stress – but let’s just say there are times when it has been a challenge.

At one point, I had two children under five, a husband working away for months at a time, several writing jobs, a teaching job, several voluntary jobs, a house to look after, meals to provide, cats to worm … and sometimes it felt as if my life was going to implode.

But was this as “stressful” as my previous life on a national newspaper? Regular 12-hour days, pressure from all sides, deadlines every minute, no sleep, too much red wine, and the lung capacity of an asthmatic budgerigar – that was the 20 Silk Cut a day.

But was even this as acutely stressful as the week last December which will surely go down as the official “week from hell”?

This was the week in which my husband came home from hospital after a major operation, my mother had a new hip, my sister was stuck in Maidstone in a blizzard with all the Christmas presents, a close friend’s mother died suddenly, the cat had a stroke and I fell off a bar stool and almost split my coccyx in two.

I said I wasn’t going to bore you. I’m sure you can’t take any more. You will have your own problems. I am interested to see that the Health and Safety Executive defines stress as “the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressure or other types of demand placed on them”.

I have come to my own conclusion that stress is a relative concept. One person’s “incredibly stressful time” is another’s “quite busy day”.

Let’s be honest. Most of us couldn’t live the life of a senior international financier without a bit of panic kicking in. I have friends who find that a trip to both the supermarket and to Meadowhall in one day makes them so exhausted they have to spend the entire evening recovering on the sofa. But how can you compare António Horta-Osório’s life of dawn meetings, massive corporate responsibility and endless air travel with the life of say, another 47-year-old father-of-three, who’s lost his job, and finds himself stuck on benefits in a dead-end town with no prospects? Both of them are going to conclude that their lives are pretty “stressful”.

The problem is that while stress is essentially personal and personalised, it has become a catch-all term for generally feeling a bit under the cosh. Once upon a time, when Norma in Accounts could take no more, she would have thrown a cup of tea at the filing cabinet and run screaming into the loo.

Now, if she goes a bit quiet for a few days, we conclude she is overly-stressed by the demands of invoicing and needs a bit of me-time.

We have even taken the word itself and customised it, a sure sign that the concept has taken serious root. If you find yourself “stressing” about feeling “stressy”, then you are a “stress-head”.

Apparently, an estimated 13.5 million working days are lost every year because of self-reported work-related stress, depression or anxiety, which hits the economy for £7bn a year in sick pay, lost productivity and health costs. Compensation claims for employment-related stress are big business, but the government, rather than seeking to investigate and perhaps to seek clearer definition of the condition, has come up with a new code for reducing stress at work, a code which puts employers at risk of legal action if they ignore it.

But how can a code cover how everyone in the work-place feels on a particular day? It is impossible. We self-diagnose, and this is dangerous, not least because “stress” has ended up covering a multitude of maladies, from feeling a bit fed-up one morning to the onset of serious mental illness.

I think that the only conclusion I can reach is that stress is the price we pay for the life we have created for ourselves. How you choose to manage that life is your own responsibility. Just don’t get too stressed about it, okay?