How to feel stressed in ten easy steps (plus a checklist)

Take a deep breath. It's time to talk about stress. And the one thing we can't do is get stressed about it. But, oddly, as soon as I even think about stress, I feel stressed. Even the word is stressful. Say stress eight times. Feel stressed? Yup, me too.

Why stress? (I'm twitching now.) Last week, the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (Nice) released guidance for employers on how to reduce workplace stress (full-on spasm). Their angle was, depressingly, how much it was costing companies - a hefty £28bn a year - as though this were the only way to get anyone to do anything about it. What if they found out that stress actually increased productivity - would they suggest ways to induce it? "Announce possible redundancies at least once a week! Turn the lights on and off repeatedly throughout the day!"

But the Nice report makes sense. It has solid, general advice for employers on how to tackle stress in the office. For the real hands-on detail, however, you have to go to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). Ah, health and safety - it was only a matter of time.

What really worries me about the HSE is that after I'd finished reading most of its guidance on how to deal with stress at work, I felt more stressed than I had for months. Here, in its own words, is the plan: "[the] HSE has designed the Management Standards approach to help employers manage the causes of work-related stress. It is based on the familiar 'five steps to risk assessment' model, requiring management and staff to work together. The standards refer to six areas of work that can lead to stress if not properly managed."

My blood pressure has gone up substantially. The "familiar" five steps? I'm not familiar with them, not even a little bit. Also, I'm very confused about how the five steps link to the six areas. But still, I shall persist.

The HSE then kindly sets out a ten-point checklist to help you see if you're ready to start implementing the Management Standards. Don't go thinking you can just implement them willy-nilly. You have to be ready. You have to have things like "a project plan". But what if you don't want to have anything to do with the Management Standards? Panic not. The HSE provides a 12-question checklist to find out if your alternative risk assessment approach is "suitable and sufficient". A sample: "Does your approach highlight the extent and nature of the gap, if any, between the current situation and what is seen as good practice, eg 'the states to be achieved' in the Management Standards, for each of the identified stress
risk areas?"

By now, I am hysterical. I had to read this question at least six times to grasp its basic meaning, and even then, by the time I'd got to the bit about good practice, I had to start again because I'd forgotten what on earth they were talking about. (Also, is it written in English?) So, my advice: avoid health and safety guidance. Unless you want to experience spectacular, excruciating stress.

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 16 November 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Dead End