Is stress the 21st century’s black death?

18 03 2012

The Japanese have a specific word for death from overwork: karoshi. Although useful for describing early death, this is not comforting to know that this syndrome is recognised enough to have its own word.

So here is a pretty interesting infographic. No surprises at some of the top most stressful jobs – but PR officer? On the other hand, my future career is as a philosopher, which features in the least stressful jobs. Of course I might be stressed about income in that job – does anyone pay for philosophers these days?

However two shockers for me:
1. Apparently relationship with boss, although a top reason for leaving a job, was not a major factor in stress levels (really? I beg to differ. See earlier postings about Psychopaths in the workplace)

2. women who felt they had some level of control in the workplace were MORE likely to die early. (The complete opposite of the Whitehall study findings from the 1960s – when the public service was 90% male. This study found that those who felt they had some level of control over their work / environment etc had better health outcomes than those who were lower down the food chain and largely powerless. We women cant seem to catch a break.)

I do however wonder how they measured stress other than early death. What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger and other platitudes.

The original link is here.

Interested in dysfunctional workplaces and stress? Have a look at
When organisations turn cannibal

Psychopaths in the workplace

Psychopaths in the workplace

16 10 2011

Ah yes, my favourite topic again.

During the week a psychologist friend sent me some links to a new movie called Fishead, and an app associated with Bob Hare, the “father” of psychopathy, if such a position can be so described.

Hare was the inventor of the Hare Psychopathy Test, which is essentially an inventory of psychopathic symptoms and characteristics. If you score “yes” in enough of these spectrums, then you get the diagnosis. The Fish-head metaphor relates to the old (but ultimately incorrect) saying, that a fish rots from the head down. It refers to when organisations go wrong it is because the leadership has gone wrong – and the propensity of psychopaths to reach the highest levels of corporate life. Apparently they account for approximately 25% of corporate leaders, whereas in all of society they account for about 1%. (Just as a matter of fact, fish actually rot from the guts – all the fluids and bacteria present in the gut mean they turn to soup quickly. And not a soup you would want to consume. Just saying.)

The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry, by Jon Ronsson (same author as “The Men Who Stare at Goats” – clearly he has an interest in nutters) is based on the Hare test.

This book is essentially Jon going on a training course for the Psychopath test, then diagnosing himself and various other people around him, meeting some people diagnosed as psychopaths, and also a couple of corporate “psychopaths” and trying to work out if he would be able to pick them without the training.

Given that one of the characteristics of the psychopath is that they can appear charming and use this as the basis of being manipulative, he of course is unable to pick them. (Don’t worry, I haven’t given away the end of the story!) Although it has to be said that the corporate psychopaths that he meets in particular are far from “normal”, even if you wouldn’t necessarily pick the correct diagnosis.

The book is subtitled “A journey through the madness industry”, and while he does look at psychology and psychiatry, looks at the development of the new DSM IV (Diagnostic Statistical Manual version IV) visits with the leadership of Scientology and gets their views on psychiatry generally, it is also worth pointing out that psychopathy is not a form of madness. It is a personality disorder. That means it is intractable and incurable. At least in part because the psychopaths themselves do not want to be cured – for them, this way of operating works (they get what they want out of it). He is however correct that there is an industry around madness, in particular the pharmaceutical industry. For better or worse. For some people this offers blessed relief from horrific and debilitating symptoms.

Jon has recently been in Australia for the Festival of Dangerous Ideas, and has also been interviewed on numerous radio programs. So all this is very topical at the moment.

Anyway, if you are interested in this subject, have a look at and/or download the free app from itunes – hours of fun and entertainment can be had diagnosing those around you, and indeed yourself.


Meanwhile, I have also ordered Hare’s book “Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us” and another associated with the Fishead website / movie / app: “Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work“.

Stay tuned for more updates, no doubt!


23 09 2011

licensed under creative commons by gadl

I am a voracious reader. Always have been.

As a child when I was sent to my room to get ready to go to school, guaranteed I would pick up a book and half an hour later I would still be in my pyjamas.

I can still remember the first reader I had at school. It was called Big and Little, and had a picture of a large and a small child on a seesaw. By the time I had finished Prep (as it was called then) I had read all the readers up to Year 3, and hence I was allowed to read library books for the rest of Infant School. As it was called then.

I still have some of my favourite books from childhood, but as all my children are boys, they aren’t into the same books. Even though I don’t re-read the books now, just looking at the covers can bring back fond memories.

And yes, I am a hoarder. I hoard books. We have six very large bookshelves in our house, jam packed with books. And several baskets, and a large pile next to my bed. I am incapable of walking out of a bookshop without buying a book, and I like to keep the books I have read for future rereading. Occasionally I can be persuaded to loan books to friends, but it has to be a pretty awful book for me to throw it out.

I go through phases with book subjects. For a while there it was fiction – I went through a strong Mary Wesley stage, adore F Scott Fitzgerald, and some of the Waugh brothers (but not all). And of course the incomparable Douglas Adams of Hitchhikers Guide to the Universe and Dirk Gently fame.

Then there was my biographical phase – mostly women writers (plus several on Douglas Adams), but it also intersected with my 1920s phase (biographies of Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald, the Waughs and the Mitfords featured strongly here).

More recently there has been a pseudo-science phase with Freakonomics, Super-Freakonomics, The Psychopath Test (all of which I loved) and the book from the Blog Dear Raed. Then there was the midlife crisis phase, where I picked books about people who completely changed their lives – One Red Paperclip, Eat Pray Love, Emergency Sex.

Now I am in a French phase. I am working my way through a pile of books about Australians who have moved to France to live for work, love or long-held passion, and the culture shock they have experienced. I suspect this is an extension of my mid-life crisis phase.

I am thrilled to find that my children seem to have inherited my love of reading. One is now found most often with a book in his hand when he should be getting ready for school. Child after my own heart!

Reading is one of the great loves and skills I wanted to hand on to my children. If you can read and don’t find it onerous, then you always have access to information. More important than knowing information, if you can read and you want to learn something, you can. It opens up horizons and opportunities.

I don’t really mind if we are running late for school.

What type of books do you read? Who is your current favourite author?

If you liked this post, you might like Food for Thought: Mindfire.


3 09 2011

I have been following some interesting discussions on LinkedIn about psychopaths in the workplace (Leaders Institute of SA group). While I believe sociopaths is probably more accurate, I have to admit psychopaths has more of a ring to it. So I will bow to peer pressure!

I won’t go into too much detail – if you are interested, google it, there is a wealth of information. But basically they are talking about people who exhibit sociopathic or psychopathic tendencies such as a lack of empathy, extreme self-absorption and focus on benefitting themselves irrespective of the cost or impact to others or to the organisation.

Many years ago I had one of these as a boss – the entire organisation was dysfunctional as a result – and more recently I have been observing (from what I hope is a safe distance) a couple of others in action courtesy of some friends who are currently suffering.

However the one area I haven’t seen much conversation about is the enablers.

The original Psychopaths in the Workplace text (which I have unfortunately forgotten the name of and hence can’t link), talks about how the psychopath can appear charming and plausible. It is part of their psyche to be able to manipulate people and you can’t do that unless you can form alliances, bring people on-board. If they were instantly repellant and obvious then they wouldn’t be so effective at their manipulation.

The stats seem to say 25% of senior execs display psychopathic or sociopathic tendencies. And we aren’t just talking about leaders with poor people / communication skills, people who are driven to achieve, or people who have to do tough and unpleasant things like retrenching employees. The important difference is that for the psychopath, their focus is entirely on themselves and they completely lack empathy. Benefits to the organisation are incidental only in that they reflect well upon them. If came down to a choice between the organisation or themselves – well there really isn’t a choice.

So the people around the psychopath fall into a number of categories. The most obvious is the victims – anyone who gets in their way is in this category as they will stop at nothing.

Then there are the useful ones – they are the worker bees, often subordinates to the psychopath, who are rewarded or protected because they are useful. They might do work for the psychopath, or provide intelligence. They may or may not see the psychopath for what he or she is. They are safe so long as they serve a purpose and don’t get in the way. Any threat will be eliminated.

The other category often mentioned is those above the psychopath. While they have potential to be in the way and hence fall into the victim category, they also can be useful to the psychopath. They may be in charge of conferring promotions or opportunities, or being referees. So often the psychopath will put on the charm offensive, and these people won’t see him or her for what they truly are.

But the enablers. And here is where I am going out on a limb. My experience and observations are that the psychopath often has one or two enablers. These are people who have formed an alliance with the psychopath. They are, if you like, super-worker-bees – or perhaps henchmen. They do the bidding of the psychopath and display similar tendencies.

Are they mini-psychopaths in the making? Are they simply modelling what seems to be effective and/or rewarded behaviour? Do they have Stockholm Syndrome? I really have no idea, and maybe it is a mixture of all three.

But if they are not psychopaths, then they are almost more culpable, because they have set aside their ethics and morals to do things they know to be deleterious to others.

The psychopath doesn’t know any different.

Disclaimer: I stress that I am not a clinician and hence this is the opinion of a layperson – a keen amateur diagnostician, as I like to refer to myself.

Further information on this topic can be found in the fascinating book The Psychopath Test (Jon Ronsson). There are a whole load of resources at Amazon. And as always, Wikipedia provides us with information on the Hare psychopath test.

If you like this posting you might also like When organisations turn Cannibal and Swimming with Sharks.

Freak Show

16 07 2011

Vintage Freak Show poster: credit: x-ray delta one

Circuses used to feature Freak Shows. Those born with disfiguring deformities or maimed through accident or disease found a way to make a living by exhibiting themselves and their lives to the paying public. I don’t think records exist as to what sort of living they made, but given that many other jobs would have been barred to them at the time, it was probably better than starving. Who knows, perhaps they enjoyed the interactions, being the centre of attention.

Did you think as a society we had moved on from turning the misfortunes of others into a spectator sport?

Starting with a generally celebrity-driven format, the Phil Donahue Show (1967-1996) and later Oprah pioneered the “average Joe and Josephine” stories as interesting to others. We peered into the lives of others, asked probing questions and watched from afar as they cried. We began to believe that the private lives of others could be served up as entertainment for vicarious thrills. But we wanted more drama. We wanted their private lives to be like soap operas.

And so entered the evil twin. Starting with Jerry Springer Show, where family and relationship disputes between dysfunctional, wildly emotional and occasionally violent people were paraded, with Jerry as the lion tamer prodding and poking them into a frenzy. Some of the stories seemed so unbelievably bizarre and complex that viewers speculated that they were made up, with actors playing the parts. Others were just sad. Perhaps this is the latter day version Roman entertainments, where we watch people tear each other apart for our amusement.

And then there is Reality TV where groups of people are placed in artificial situations under high pressure, isolated from their families and friends, deprived of sleep (a form of torture under the Geneva Convention) and asked to do highly stressful tasks such as memorise a song and perform it for a live audience, cook a meal for a visiting celebrity chef with three bizarre ingredients they have never seen before, or compete in some sort of humorous obstacle course hobbled by fancy dress.

According to author Jon Ronson, the insanity we see on Jerry Springer, and the later reincarnations of Reality TV, is not accidental. Of all the people who write into these shows offering up their stories and begging to be given air-time (a sign of insanity to start with), the producers (or at least the one he spoke to) actually picked who would get onto the show based on the level of madness they exhibited. Like Goldilocks and the three bears, they picked their way through the diagnoses to select those madnesses that could be served up for entertainment. Psychotic illness – too much. Mild depression – not enough. Personality disorders – now we’re talking.

What damage is done by placing people with diagnosed mental illness into artificially manipulated high pressure situations and then tormenting them until they crack? Some go on to become minor celebrities, sure. But others may be damaged permanently.

In 1995 the Jenny Jones Show lured a man onto their show to find out who had a secret crush on him. When it was revealed on the show that his secret admirer was a male friend, not a female as he had been led to believe, he appeared to deal with it with a sense of humour. Three days following the taping of the show, he bought a gun, went to the home of his secret admirer – and shot him dead. Surprisingly, the show was not cancelled although that particular episode was not aired. Turns out he had a history of mental illness and drug & alcohol addiction – he was convicted of murder in the second degree and is now serving a 25-50 year prison term. The Show won a suit brought against them by the victim’s family for wrongful death.

One wonders how the contestants fit back into their lives when the TV cameras are gone and all they are left with is the memories of what they confessed or did publicly on TV.

Do we want to be a society that considers watching people disintegrate to be entertaining?

(This blog was inspired by Jon Ronson’s latest book, The Psychopath Test: A journey through the madness industry. Fascinating book that kept me up all night reading, well worth it. Jon can be seen on Youtube explaining a little more about the premise of the book. To purchase the book from Amazon, please click here:The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry