According to some of my older lecture notes, there is or used to be a stress-relieving service available in Tokyo’s business district which involved dogs. An assistant would arrive at the office festooned with small dogs on leads, and hyper-stressed businessmen could spend a calming few minutes stroking their tensions away and into the dog instead. The animals would then be carted off, by now obviously completely demented, and the executive could return to his desk in a state of Zen-like tranquillity, ready to face the afternoon.
This would never happen in the UK, you might think, but as awareness of the causes and damaging impacts of stress grows, do not be so sure. The employer which does not take sufficient precautions against the deleterious effects of stress on its workforce could well be exposed. Some of our clients already have “play areas” containing ping-pong or football tables, trendy furniture and gentler lighting, though they are perhaps ignorant of the stress caused to their older workers by the fear of not being able to exit their beanbag without outside help.
So top marks to the University student population for shedding a light on the next generation of must-have stress-beaters. Leicester University students, says the BBC Online, have ordered hundreds of yards of bubble-wrap on the basis that popping it brings an “instant gratification” (really?) more immediate and effective than meditation or yoga. In an eerie echo of Tokyo practice, the Leicester Students Union will apparently also be shipping in puppies, though who will clear up afterwards has not been disclosed. Early trials with geese, chickens and a cow had seemingly not lived up to expectations, at least so far as the students were concerned.
Bath Spa University also opened its own pre-examination petting zoo last week, allowing students a brief break from revision to stroke goats and feed ducks. One student stated earnestly that many people “may feel too ashamed to speak out about exam stress”. No need to talk about it, therefore – just go and sit outside the Library fondling a goat and no one will have any concerns for your mental health at all.
Let us be clear here – there is no prospect of animals becoming a necessary or indeed wise anti-stress measure in the workplace. Animal rights campaigners Peta have suggested back massages and/or bouncy castles as alternatives, but the potential for legal claims there seems almost endless. The wisdom of the old adage about not working with children or animals was proven conclusively in Missouri earlier this month where a student in a University petting zoo (sorry, visiting the petting zoo) was bitten by a bear. Far more sensible to adopt the University of Canberra’s reported approach to stress management, i.e. a pop-up pub.
Actually none of this is terribly sensible. It is much better for a University or an employer to recognise that some roles or some times of year impose considerable pressure (good) but also stress (less good) on their people. They cannot make the exams/work go away, but they can and should make it clear that a brief break from work now and again will not hurt, that it is OK to feel under pressure and there is someone who is confidential, qualified and genuinely empathetic to talk to if and when the need arises. It does no one any good to be led to believe that the mental health management arsenal of the modern employer has any real room for bubble-wrap or chickens.