The Swiss recently voted to reject 6 weeks of vacation. One of the arguments for the referendum was increased stress in the workplace. We are becoming more and more conscious of the relationship between our emotional state and our decision-making capacities. A famous example of the effects of stress happened during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Late into the night during a Cabinet meeting, President Kennedy asked what the United States should do. The answers from around the table were overwhelmingly in favor of bombing Cuba, which could have started a nuclear war with the Soviet Union. Kennedy finally turned to his brother, Bobby, who suggested that they all go to bed and reflect. The next morning when the President took another round of opinion, everyone favored an embargo. The lesson is that fatigue and stress can change our perceptions and decisions.
An American staff sergeant is accused of methodically shooting and stabbing 16 Afghan villagers, mostly women and children. A senior U.S. official said "he just snapped," pointing to the fact that the 38 year-old married father of two was suffering from the stress related to his fourth combat tour and domestic issues. The official added, "There will be questions raised about his emotional and mental stability for a fourth deployment". A U.S. military survey last year concluded that, "There are few stresses on the human psyche as extreme as the exposure to combat and seeing what war can do". The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that 830,000 Vietnam War veterans suffered from Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
The referendum on 6 weeks of vacation raised serious questions about our modern rhythm of life. While it is obvious that we should not compare stress with trauma, or the pressures of the office with combat, an accumulation of stress can cause people to "snap" in different ways. I voted against the 6 weeks vacation because I thought the problem was not time, but the quality of environment in the workplace. Technology has to some extent dehumanized and downgraded the importance of face-to-face relationships. We can sit behind a computer screen all day with no verbal contact with anyone. When Daniel Goleman wrote about emotional intelligence, he reminded us that we spend much too much time quantifying and not enough focusing on the quality of our lives.
Staff Sergeant Robert Bales "snapped" in a way that horrifies and saddens. His burnout has made front page news because of the terrible consequences. His actions are the tip of an iceberg that not only the armed forces will have to deal with in the future.
March 19, 2012