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Social Science Matters: The stressed society

Stress, burnout, depression – these conditions pervade all levels of our society. Children and students suffer from constant pressure to achieve; at the international level, tensions lead to short-sighted actions; and, at the personal level, stress affects our health and social environment. How do our social scientists view stress?

Negative versus positive stress

- Education and Child Studies lecturer Stephan Huijbregts

These days, stress seems to underlie virtually every bad thing that can happen to a person. Walking into the Pieter de la Court building, I’m struck by a big screen announcing “Stress-free study: it is possible!” How? All will be revealed at the advertised symposium. But the question remains whether it is actually desirable to abolish stress completely. A lot of research has shown that performance in a whole range of areas is actually enhanced by a substantial level of stress. This can be seen from a quite young age. There are children who perform best in exams when they are extra alert due to the accompanying tension. Recent studies even point to better adapted behaviour and cognitive functioning in infants and toddlers with a certain stress responsivity.  

Nevertheless, stress generally has negative connotations, and clear links have been shown between stress and various mental and physical health problems. These links can perhaps be explained by a lack of rewards and appreciation for efforts. As a child, the reward for undergoing a certain amount of stress may still lie in getting a good mark in an exam, or winning a sports competition. As an infant, you may be rewarded by a cuddle or a smile from your parents. But as people get older, they have less and less control over rewards or appreciation: a major achievement, to which positive stress perhaps contributed, is by no means always rewarded or appreciated. And that is the critical point at which positive stress gives way to negative stress, which in more serious or prolonged cases may result in health problems. It all comes down to a sense of control. If this is lacking from a young age – due to problematic family circumstances, for instance – the consequences at a later age seem to be even more serious.

So the message is: don’t abolish positive stress, but make sure it doesn’t turn into negative stress! Make sure everyone has, and continues to have, the sense that they are in control!          

A vicious circle

- Political scientist Arjen Boin

A desire for efficiency and a belief in progress – this is what drives our stressed society. We constantly want everything more quickly and more cheaply. Our Internet connection soon seems way too slow (even though it’s actually far quicker than 10 years ago). Flights need to be cheaper (even though it’s now more expensive to get the bus). We are addicted to speed, ease, and low costs.

This addiction demands processes and systems that are ever more complex and ever more closely interwoven. This leads to unanticipated problems. A minor disruption in one system (electricity) can lead to serious disruptions in another critical system (transport). But any kind of disruption is unacceptable in our stressed society. Train delays, an hour-long power outage – the sense of crisis is never far away.

Something has to be done about this, of course. But what? A more robust system will lead to even more complexity and interconnectedness (and thus more undesired disruptions). The alternative is to take a step back, to disconnect modern systems. This is precisely what some politicians promise: returning to an idyllic past by putting up walls and opting out of integrated associations such as the European Union.

The dilemma is highly charged. Many people are doubtful about the fruits of modernization. Modern systems are under discussion, but not the gains of these systems. These days, nobody can manage without a telephone, or that “relaxing little break”. New opportunities (internet of things, driverless cars) go hand in hand with new challenges (privacy, erosion of institutions). This makes a fundamental discussion desirable, but complex. Forwards or backwards? We’re all too busy to reflect calmly about these issues.     

Stress, burnout, depression – it’s a full-time occupation!

- Psychologist Bart Verkuil

Stress, work pressure, and burnout – if the media are to believed, they’re a major preoccupation for us all. It is well known that prolonged stress can be associated with mental and physical problems. So it’s a good thing for people to be aware of the need to prevent and treat prolonged stress symptoms.                                                                                 

Nevertheless, it is important to remain critical about how research into stress in society is carried out. Recently, there have been various reports of students feeling an extremely high level of pressure to succeed: when students were asked how often they experienced “the feeling that I need to achieve”, 62% responded “often” or “very often”. But you could legitimately wonder whether that might not simply be appropriate for people who are spending a large part of their daily lives carrying out a programme of study. The context demands that you achieve something. (What are we to make of those students who never have a feeling they need to achieve anything?)

Measuring a container concept such as stress is a complex matter. If you want to reach some conclusions about feelings of stress in society, you can get large groups of the Dutch population to fill in a questionnaire. Efficient, maybe, but there is a high risk of distorted outcomes, due to interference of short-term stress (a participant may have just had a terrible day and may exaggerate when filling in the form) or due to a self-selecting group (only people who want to complain about stress will participate in the research). More detailed research, on the other hand – such as getting people to report their feelings of stress over several weeks (e.g., using a smartphone app) while you constantly measure their physiological stress responses (e.g., heart activity) – is both time-intensive and expensive. In stress research, too, we want to be ‘picture perfect’… but that is asking for trouble. Feel those stress hormones pumping…?

The importance of community

- Anthropologist Rosalinde Spitters

(This contribution was presented live on 29 April 2018 live during the TEDx Leiden University - Building Bridges (starting 38:00))

Within our society, stress is omnipresent. More and more people suffer from constant high levels of stress, which often result in burnouts and depression. An obvious approach to dealing with these personal struggles is to try to do less: take time off, practise mindfulness, say “no” more often. If that isn’t enough, and people lose control over their situation, there are doctors, therapists, and coaches who can help them through.

The problem with these kinds of solutions, however, is that they merely treat the symptoms. But if such a large percentage of people are struggling, the cause of all this stress has gone beyond the level of individual cases. It’s in the very structures of our society. Stress, burnout, and depression have become mainstream and thus part of culture. Over time we have developed a culture in which competition and social pressure have become central elements. People expect themselves and each other to be efficient, effective, and successful all the time. A certain status even seems to attach to always being busy.

People afford themselves and each other less and less room to reflect on what they are doing and why, to experiment with different strategies, and to make mistakes and learn from them. Failure is no longer seen as an option. The irony here is that we are now creating the opposite effect. People are no longer achieving more, or attaining better personal outcomes. Instead, many of us are running around in circles and becoming sick. We seem to be stuck in a downward spiral in which we make the problem worse and worse.

I believe a solution cannot be found simply by individual people dealing with their own struggles. It’s time to start reflecting on our stressed-out society in terms of culture and structural elements as well. Our own university community can take the lead. We know about society, and our expertise lies in solving major societal challenges. On top of that we already have all the knowledge we need. We need only to connect the dots and combine the expertise from our various disciplines.

But the beginning of this process has to be for us to reflect critically on our own university culture. We are just as stressed out as the rest of society. Pressures of time, money, and marketization in general have turned us into something resembling a company: we serve our customers and sell our output. We too have reached the point of counter-productivity.

By putting community resilience on the agenda and finding ways to reduce the pace a bit, we can define what our core values really are and get rid of the elements in our current culture that do not fit our mission and vision. I believe more space to experiment and make mistakes is an important first step. This is necessary to spark creativity and find innovative solutions. Let’s use our existing resources and structures to connect with each other and to develop a healthier and more sustainable university culture. If we get there, then we can lead the way in dealing with the broader societal challenge as well…

Social Science Matters – a soapbox for social scientists

Social Science Matters is an online variant on London’s famous Speakers’ Corner – a platform for the researchers in the various disciplines in the Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences to react to the news. This soapbox gives the social scientists of the faculty the opportunity to voice their opinions on current affairs from the point of view of their own areas of expertise.


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