Living in stressful times: 1980s Britain by Dr Jill Kirby

It is Spring 1984 in Britain: 24 million Britons have just watched Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean figure-skate their way to Winter Olympics gold on the BBC, Colin Baker is the sixth Dr Who and The Price is Right recently debuted on ITV.  The Sun’s front-page reads ‘Pit war: violence erupts on the picket line as miner fights miner’, highlighting divisions in the National Union of Miners, currently striking against large-scale pit closures.  Meanwhile, The Guardian’s front page features an Iranian victim of chemical weapons in the ongoing Iran-Iraq war and a prediction of large-scale job cuts under a Ministry of Defence review.[1]  On the radio, the song 99 Red Balloons by German singer Nena is top of the charts warning about nuclear annihilation.

For the respondents to the recently revived social research organisation, the Mass Observation Project (MOP), this was the context for a directive asking about their well-being, including whether they had ‘felt constantly under strain’ or suffered from ‘nervousness or tenseness.’  The word ‘stress’ did not appear: a surprising omission against the growing popular discourse that saw newspapers warning of ‘Stress: The big danger to your health’ in various permutations throughout the previous decade.[2]  The older terminology of ‘nerves’ and ‘strain’ was evidently still a more familiar, popular way to describe what doctors might diagnose as stress.

Despite the lack of direct question about stress, many respondents wrote about it, acknowledging its novelty, in this case, by using quotation marks:

Over the last couple of years due to increased responsibilities and demands at work I have become increasingly aware of ‘stress’ and its effects on my health.  I am normally a healthy person – but at its worst ‘stress’ lands me with desperate feelings of over-tiredness.[3]

Coming from a 29-year-old theatrical costumier, this account reflected how most people understood stress i.e. as a result of overwork.  However, MOP writers also exposed a wider and more complex interplay of causal factors arising from the realities of everyday life in the 1980s.  Unemployment, or the fear of it, was foremost in the minds of many, reminded almost daily by the miner’s strike and soaring jobless statistics.[4]  A housewife told MOP:

Family life for the past 2 ½ years has not been stable as my husband has been employed or unemployed – the latter in particular causing stress. My husband is now working away from home so I have the children to cope with – alone for the greater part of the week …If I could somehow relax I feel life would take on a brighter outlook.’[5]

Her comment reveals that it was not only the experience of being unemployed that was stressful but the conditions that people were forced to accept in order to remain employed, such as living away from home for long periods.

Even those in work were finding life in general more stressful, as a part-time egg-grader in her late fifties remarked:

Talking to people similar to myself I realise that at the present time there is more stress than I can ever remember.  I notice that my youngest child (age nearly 12 years) is much more tense and nervous than any of my other five children were and I put it down to the stressful times we live in.  The fear of the atom bomb has frightened my little girl.  I never told her about it the TV and schools did that.[6]

Fear of nuclear war was an underlying element of life during the Cold War, made tangible by pop songs such as 99 Red Balloons, but also by the apparent fragility of global geopolitics, brought home to Britons by the apparent suddenness of the Falklands conflict in 1982.

For women, stress was very often caused not by paid work, but by their domestic roles, particularly the managing or mitigating of someone else’s stress, as a retired teacher explained:

I get tired partly because worry about my unemployed teenagers and the future of my husband’s job (he is 8 years younger than I) puts us under a great deal of stress…I also worry about my husband’s health, as he has to work very hard (one day off a fortnight and very long hours of shift work!) and he worries about the children’s future if they don’t get work.  I can see that he is often very tense and I worry in case he has a coronary.[7]

The stress of others often compounded existing tensions.  Indeed, for some women, while the workplace brought its own pressures, it was often seen as a relief from the strain of managing domestic stress.

The story of stress in 1980s Britain is one of increasing recognition of such experiences, arising from considerable social, economic and technological change.  People believed that life was more stressful than previously, and it is not hard to understand why.  However, as my book Feeling the strain: a cultural history of stress in twentieth-century Britain (MUP, 2019) discusses, each generation makes the same claim.  The book explores why and historicises the evolution of stress and its forerunners in Britain in the twentieth century, explaining how stress became so ubiquitous by drawing on the accounts of ordinary people, newspapers and popular culture.  By considering the ways that people have experienced, understood and managed stress, it illustrates changing gender relations, the shifting meaning and practices of work and its intersections with the domestic, and highlights the social and cultural implications of the psychologization of the self over the century.

Jill Kirby is a lecturer in History at the University of Sussex where she convenes and teaches history as part of the award-winning Central Foundation Year team, alongside teaching undergraduate British history. Her current research interests include a project investigating pedagogic interventions to mitigate student experiences of stress and anxiety in seminars and work to historicise student stress. Drawing on material from the newly-digitised Mass Observation Project, most recently she has been investigating the cultural history of menopause in twentieth-century Britain. In her spare time she cooks, runs and reads Golden Age detective fiction, though not necessarily in that order.

[1] ‘Iranian Casualties Flown In’, The Guardian, 13 March 1984, 1; ‘Big Job Cuts in Heseltine Services Shake Up’, The Guardian, 13 March 1984, 1.

[2] ‘Stress: The Big Danger to Your Health’, Daily Mirror, 9 July 1976, 21; ‘The Seven Ages of Stress’, Daily Mirror, 20 October 1972, 25.

[3] ‘Replies to Spring Directive Social Well-Being’ (1984), I720, Mass Observation Archive, University of Sussex.

[4] Eric J Evans, Thatcher and Thatcherism (London: Routledge, 2004), 30.

[5] ‘Social Well-Being’, N880.

[6] ‘Social Well-Being’, S496.

[7] ‘Social Well-Being’, M387.

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