More Equal Than Others ?

Do you get headaches when stressed ?

How about more frequent colds, difficulty sleeping or even higher blood pressure ? Do you find yourself being more moody, eating too much of the wrong type of food, taking less exercise, getting angry quicker or drinking too much ?

In general the more stress we feel under, the less healthy we are – both because the stress itself has a negative effect, but also because we tend compensate for stress in unhealthy ways – such as comfort eating or drinking too much, to make ourselves feel better in the short term.

If we’re smart of course, we can try to avoid or minimise whatever’s stressing us in the first place.

But some of the things we get stressed about aren’t always that obvious. This is especially true of chronic stresses, things we don’t associate with a particular event or set of circumstances, but consider to be ‘just part of life’. These include social stresses – such as worrying about how we’re seen and judged by others etc.

In the 1970s a health study of UK civil servants was carried out. Its findings were so unexpected that a second study was carried out in the 1980s.

What the studies found was that the higher the grades of the civil servant, the longer their life expectancy. This was true not only between the very top and the bottom, which might have been reasonably expected, taking into account things like improved diets, earlier retirements etc, but it was also true on almost a grade by grade basis throughout the very hierarchical civil service structure. The researchers could not explain this in absolute terms, only in relative ones.

It seems it’s not how much money and status you have that matters, but how much money and status you have compared to those around you.

This fascinating finding has lead to the study of what are now referred to as the Social Determinants of HealthSir Michael Marmot (who undertook the original civil service health studies) has advised successive UK governments on the effects of what he refers to as: Status Syndrome. These are the negative health consequences of feeling you have comparitively lower status, and less ability to direct your life, than those around you.

It’s not just individuals who are affected by the negative consequences of social stresses, but whole societies, and they are not confined  only to health effects.

More divided and unequal societies also have higher levels of drug and alcohol abuse, mental illness, crime and imprisonment. In many respects this shouldn’t be a surprise – greed and respect based violence might be expected to be more common in societies where which wealth and status are seen as priorities, but are simply unattainable for large numbers of people.

The more unequal and divided a society the greater these effects become.

Professor Richard Wilkinson, author of the book The Spirit Level, discusses the negative consequences of societal inequalities in his Ted talk below. Wilkinson also wishes to see his group’s findings used to help develop policies which will make societies more equal, and in conjunction with others has founded the organisation The Equality Trust, which works to reduce income inequality in order to improve the quality of life in the UK.

Making our societies more equal it appears, will not only help improve social and public health outcomes, but will also hopefully help to peacefully heal the increasingly deep divisions in our society.

If trying to achieve a more equal society seems a bit too big for today’s To Do List, you could always work on your own status anxieties instead.


Photo from GunGirlNewYork via Flickr

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  1. It seems obvious that the less one makes in salary the more stress he/she will have trying to make ends meet. But also the “keeping up with the Jones” syndrome can cause stress.. And finally, we all know that bosses can cause stress, so the lower one is on the totem pole, the more bosses he/she has, therefore the more stress!!!

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