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Work • Sorrows of Work

On Falling Apart at the Office

I. Office Victorians

In the 19th century, British explorers were famous for not getting stressed. They might – like David Livingstone in his travels in central Africa between 1851 and 1883 – get attacked by a lion, suffer pneumonia, see most of their companions die of malaria and dysentery – and yet remain calmly optimistic. Livingstone’s journal (written in berry juice when the ink ran out) isn’t a record of his gripes or personal anxieties. It’s filled with tranquil speculations about central African water-systems and careful observations about goat trading.

After going missing for several years, when Livingstone finally met up with his fellow explorer Henry Morton Stanley, there was no great show of emotion. For Victorian missionaries and explorers, stress was not an acceptable state of mind. One had to be positive and in control at all times.

This attitude didn’t disappear at the end of the 19th century. Of course, it is now quite unacceptable within relationships, but it flourishes in another major area of life: work. Modern business is full of people who deny their inner suffering – and who are, despite lots of surface differences and outward markers of casualness and openness, in their own way just as buttoned up as legendary Victorian explorers enduring the tropics in crisply-ironed khaki.


Whatever the rhetoric, being tough is currently crucial at the office. There’s a prevalent and distinctly brutish idea at large that one should be hard to impress, harsh in identifying people’s defects and unmoved by failure in others and oneself: empathy for the weak is itself a fatal weakness.

Because self-doubt is taboo, it can be hard to recognise that it even exists. The world’s offices are full of people (let’s call them Office Victorians) who come across as unyielding and coldly confident, when the strange, underlying fact is that they are terrified – and yet they see business as too dangerous a place in which to own up to being afraid and in doubt. It takes a courage and a trust in one’s own authority which is easy to lack in order to admit that things may be spinning out of control. Far easier to settle into a composure of grim stolidity.

For those of us who have to work around Office Victorians, it is useful to know that outwardly very intimidating people might be scared, rather than mean. If we have to deal with their rigid certainties and barked orders, we shouldn’t respond to the iciness, but need to go beneath the surface behaviour in order to try to deal with the frightened child within. It will be tricky, though, because they’ll make that interpretation feel entirely inappropriate. That’s part of their self-defence.

Office Victorians give the impression that stress is something one should be ashamed of when in fact, real bravery involves a capacity to admit to worry and fragility.

Once one looks at the office as a place full of the walking wounded, there’s no shortage of evidence for how hard it is to cope. Someone who has been doing well in the company for a few years starts, perhaps quite suddenly, to be beset by large worries about the purpose of work, the direction of their career and the state of their relationships. They get very interested in travelling; they’re always checking up prices of flights to Istanbul or Airbnb options in Sao Paulo. They make some weird remarks: ‘We’re all going to die, so why are we worrying about the China market?’ They mention ‘the death of God’ at a meeting of regional sales reps. During a break in a planning session, while pouring a cup of coffee, they ask a colleague ‘Are you ever struck by the thought that it might have been better never to have been born?’ or ‘What do you think it would be like to be a cloud?’ On two Monday mornings in a row they come in looking haggard. Emerging from the lift, it looks as if they have been crying on the way up to the 15th floor. They look out of the window a lot. They are going through what might be called an ‘existential’ crisis – named in acknowledgment of the mid-twentieth Century French philosophers, the Existentialists, like Camus and Sartre, who were especially interested in the panicked feeling that one’s current life is meaningless.


Albert Camus, 1957

The first instinct would be to say that these are all signs of a bad employee. Their work is definitely suffering; other people are getting bothered. The company might start to think about how much it’s going to cost to let them go.

But management shouldn’t be scared. An existential crisis doesn’t mean someone is a bad employee (though something does need to be done). We need to give ourselves much less alarming accounts of what’s going on when an individual falls into a state where they are puzzled, angry, worried or unduly thoughtful about the purpose and direction of their life.

Going through such mental anguish from time to time, at least every few years, is a natural, even inevitable part of being human. You don’t get confused and troubled because you are misguided, weak-willed or selfish, but because you are complex, thoughtful, fragile and – like everyone – slightly broken.

At a collective level, we’ve given ourselves unfrightened accounts of what’s going on when teenagers sit moodily staring out of the window and can’t answer when someone asks them what is going on or requests them to pass the salt. We know these young people aren’t heading directly for a life of delinquency; we can stay confident that a reconciliation with the demands of the world will emerge.


© Flickr/thisishane

We should expect analogous periods of confusion and loss of direction to punctuate the lives of every employee. We are not automatons, but highly complicated volatile collections of protein that need careful and sympathetic administering. The good, mature corporation makes room for the fact. They see their task not as that of shepherding an army of the mentally invulnerable, but rather of stopping periods of angst from turning into full-blown disasters.

A lot of large companies now recognise the need for a gym. They realise there isn’t a conflict between health and working hard. Stretching your biceps of course doesn’t have direct, immediate pay offs for work. But there’s an acknowledged correlation between being a good employee and taking time to administer to the needs of the body.


Something similar must eventually develop around mental health. Setting up an employee gym for the mind, otherwise known as a therapy centre, wouldn’t directly close a deal or pep up a presentation. But it would signal that a company understands and affords legitimacy to the needs of the emotional self. We need companies that can calmly take on board the idea that total sanity won’t be possible for any of us all the time.

II. Sensitive Souls

Human beings are astonishingly sensitive creatures. Our ears can pick up sounds between 20 Hz to 20,000 Hz: which means anything from the rustling of a sheet of paper in the room next door to the minute sound of water dropping into a can five floors away. Our eyes are no less acute, with a capacity to detect a luminance range of 1014, or one hundred trillion (100,000,000,000,000) (about 46.5 f-stops), from 10−6 cd/m2. At the end of our fingertips are 2,500 receptors per cm2, ready to appreciate the contrast between Central American cotton (gossypium hirsutum) and its slightly smoother Egyptian cousin (gossypium herbaceum). As for the 40 million olfactory receptor neurons in our noses, they can distinguish between one trillion different odors. The memory storage capacity of our mind is no less prodigious: the brain contains one billion neurons, each of which makes around 1,000 connections with other neurons, resulting in a total network of a trillion connections. Our computers may be impressive, but our brains continue to be more so, for they can hold about 2.5 petabytes (or a million gigabytes) of memory: which means that if it worked like a video recorder, you’d need to leave the TV on for 300 years to fill up your mind.

These capacities have been wonderful for politics, engineering, chemistry, biology – and especially for art, where the results of human sensitivity are perhaps easiest to notice and marvel at. Only an animal as well sensorily-well-equipped as we would have bothered to arrange the 10,000 pieces of coloured glass that go into the large rose window of Chartres cathedral.

Rose window in the Notre Dame cathedral, Paris

Or would have been able to manipulate five different kinds of blue to produce an extraordinarily life-like sleeve, as Titian did:

Titian’s Portrait of a Man

Only an animal of dazzling neuronal complexity would be able to read (let alone write) a passage like the one below from Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, where the central character, Swann, finds himself deeply moved by a piece of music:

But tonight, at Mme. Verdurin’s, scarcely had the little pianist begun to play when, suddenly, after a high note held on through two whole bars, Swann saw it approaching, stealing forth from underneath that resonance, which was prolonged and stretched out over it, like a curtain of sound, to veil the mystery of its birth—and recognised, secret, whispering, articulate, the airy and fragrant phrase that he had loved. And it was so peculiarly itself, it had so personal a charm, which nothing else could have replaced, that Swann felt as though he had met, in a friend’s drawing-room, a woman whom he had seen and admired, once, in the street, and had despaired of ever seeing her again. Finally the phrase withdrew and vanished, pointing, directing, diligent among the wandering currents of its fragrance, leaving upon Swann’s features a reflection of its smile. But now, at last, he could ask the name of his fair unknown – and was told that it was the andante movement of Vinteuil’s sonata for the piano and violin.

This is the good side to being human. Unfortunately, we buy our sensitivity at a very high price. Our capacity to notice, remember and imagine so much is responsible both for the glories of civilization and for an awful lot of everyday frustration and stress.

Marcel Proust was driven almost to madness by his sensitivity. The writer Andre Gide once described him (with compassion) as ‘a man born without a skin.’ He was capable not only of arranging words with superlative grace on the page, but also of hearing noises three apartments below his (requiring him to line his bedroom with cork) and of suffering from a difference in altitude between Versailles and central Paris (83 meters).

Even when we’re not Proust, we notice rather too much. Moment by moment you might be aware of a sound in the next room, traffic outside (a car slowing down, another going over a speed hump, the tiny variation in sound as a vehicle turns a corner); you’re aware there’s a meeting coming up next month that needs special attention, that you’ve got to pick up the dry cleaning tomorrow; that you never heard back from X; that Y didn’t smile this morning; that the take-away coffee was a bit weak and your brain feels a touch slow; that’s there’s a slightly dry patch on the roof of your mouth, that your left shoulder feels tense, that you never heard back from Z, that there’s a package waiting for you at home, that you don’t really like the shoes you are wearing … The list could be extended indefinitely.

Stress is the over-stimulation of the sensory apparatus. Because stress is so unpleasant, it’s tempting to hate ourselves for suffering from it and to see it as some form of unique curse or personal weakness. But at the level of our very organs, we are creatures fundamentally predisposed to over-stimulation. Stress is intimately bound up with our strengths, it’s a weakness related to our talents as a species. That we are prone to mania, can’t sleep, feel weary, crazy or burdened by strange thoughts is not unusual or motive-less: it’s a logical outcome of, and a heavy price we all have to pay for, our astonishing mental capacities.

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