How I Got Radicalized

Stress Balls Are a Sign of Our Overworked Culture

They may seem cute and squishy, but really they’re a byproduct of capitalism gone awry

Illustration: Taylor Le for GEN

Welcome to “How I Got Radicalized,” a series from GEN that tells the story of a cultural moment that made you drastically rethink how society works.

I don’t remember the first time I encountered a stress ball, that timeless fidget tool, but I’ll always remember the one that I found in my parents’ basement late last year. It’s sitting beside me as I type, a squishy, blue-green orb the size of a tangerine. As a tireless tchotchke-hoarder kid, these little squishies were my favorite part of any back-to-school welcome package. In high school, they were the prized take-home freebie from stuffy seminars. Even at university, when I could snag one at some campus conference’s swag table and press it between my palm and fingers, their appeal would come whipping back to me.

Even now, at 27 years old, stress balls remain an immense help for managing my workplace anxiety. Instead of idly chewing my cheek or scratching my hairline, I squeeze, first letting all my fingers together sink into the mass, then slowly giving each digit a turn. My nail cuticles, which used to be bloodied and torn on a regular basis, are as tidy as they’ve been in a long time. It’s actually become a staple piece of my work-from-home setup: laptop, mouse, water bottle, stress ball.

For a while, this new find was supremely satisfying. After sitting at a keyboard for hours, the tactile experience was exquisite. But this past December, a few days after my latest stress ball score, my brain began reframing the benefits. Why is work causing me to peel off the skin around my fingernails and why am I using a little rubber ball to stop the skin-peeling shit?

I wound up doing something I never thought I would have time or reason to do. I began to critically reinterpret my relationship to my stress ball, and stress balls in general. My reappraisal made me wonder, why on earth did we create a working world that’s so bad, we have to squeeze a little rubber rage toy to stop from punching a wall? This is when I realized that these cute little balls are a simple, sinister indication of a dominant strain of modern thought — living conditions in late-capitalism suck and there’s nothing to do except be quietly angry about it.

The predominant tack of mainstream work culture has been to offload as many responsibilities as possible while expecting more and more of workers. The past year of living through the Covid-19 pandemic has seen employers engage in perhaps the most galling and murderous abdication of humanity and care in history. Millions of workers, arms twisted between eviction and a deadly disease, have continued to work in unsafe environments. Millions more, forced to work from their own residences, have been accused of time theft and subjected to wage cuts. At Amazon alone, nearly 20,000 workers have caught the coronavirus; that number doesn’t include delivery drivers. Jeff Bezos’ net worth skyrocketed. Workers have been given little else besides a stress ball and reminders to “take care.”

The modern stress ball, which blew up in North American pop culture in the late 1980s, belongs at least spiritually to a thriving lineage of stopgap wellness measures that treat the symptom rather than the sickness. Their place in modern work culture — as a kooky, comedic office toy to absorb white-collar working rage — tracks with the ways we’ve failed to develop solutions to the conditions that are killing our bodies and spirits. By most available metrics on North American work life, we continue to create patchwork remedies that leave us just as miserable as before.

The first trademarked stress ball — called, creatively, Stressball — was invented in 1988 by a pissed-off media worker named Alex Carswell after his boss made him so angry that he pitched a pen at a wall, smashing a photo of his mother. He created the original Stressball to mimic the experience without damage: It was a small ball that, when hit against a surface, emitted a sound like smashing glass.

Then things really took off. It turns out, office workers were under immense, crushing stress, and there was real appeal in taking out that anxiety and anger on a small piece of rubber. A slew of knockoffs followed; the 1989 Rx Freud ball, marketed under the header “Prescription For Stress,” made giggling sounds, for some reason; a talking-pillow blurted out woes as it was punched; and a desk-size punching bag called Wham-It was a hit in offices.

Why on earth did we create a working world that’s so bad, we have to squeeze a little rubber rage toy to stop from punching a wall?

Part of the stress ball’s persuasion and utility is its simple focus — it’s all about you, baby! The stress ball is entirely directed at and, in a little way, reinforces the gravity and agency of the individual and their all-important problems. It absorbs them, making them somehow real, tangible things. But the ultimate lie of the object is told through its physical limitation: the harder you squeeze, the less satisfying it becomes. Your muscles tense and quiver, your knuckles buckle, your fingers ache, and the ball, like your struggles, holds fast all the while, unfazed and unchanged.

The weight of these gadgets’ popularity is telling, and they were probably funny and a little bit radical at the time of their invention because they acknowledged with tongue-in-cheek something researchers were beginning to learn: Work was making Americans anxious, depressed, and generally miserable.

Obviously, stress toys — which never resolved the problems workers dealt with, only offered a seconds-long outlet for histrionics — aren’t responsible for our shitty workplaces and capricious bosses, but looking at them from a certain angle, they appear as a bellwether for how modern capitalist culture addresses its issues. Life-threatening illnesses often aren’t fixed by the state or an employer; they’re crowdsourced by GoFundMe campaigns. Radical policies that would materially change our conditions are sucked up and repackaged in a watered-down, centrist version that satiates only the smallest bit of frustration. We live in a society of endless stress ball-solutions rather than creative, material changes. The stress ball-solution placates the brain just enough to keep it from wondering why it was a necessary purchase in the first place.

Ultimately, the stress ball is a squishy, childish indication of how our working world enforces our inabilities to communicate, to connect, to organize for better conditions, to have our human dignity seen and respected. It symbolizes the millions of ways modern workers have to swallow their pride and accept their own exploitation, with a vein popping in their forehead and a brand-marked polyurethane bursting between their knuckles.

In the end, I guess I just feel sold short. I start to imagine what might be different if all the labor power, money, and rubber that went into creating stress balls had instead been committed to building a better, healthier way to be; if all the collective anger and frustration of stressed-out workers the world over had been harnessed instead of frittered away into a piece of desk clutter. It all gets too upsetting, so for now, I reach for my stress ball and squeeze.

Luke Ottenhof (he/him) is a freelance writer based in Kingston, Ontario, and sometimes in Toronto, Ontario.

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