There is growing media coverage of the increase in, and implications of, work-related stress. An article in the Telegraph in November 2018 announced, ‘for the first time, work-related stress, anxiety or depression accounts for over half of all working days lost due to ill health in Great Britain’. The newspaper article examined figures released by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) in their annual summary statistics report.
The figures released in the 2018 HSE report are staggering. There were 26.8 million work days lost to ill health in 2017-18. Of those, 15.4 million were lost due to stress, anxiety or depression. This is an increase of 2.9 million from the previous year and equates to 57.3% of total work days lost. According to the data released, most at risk are workers in the education industry with social workers as the next, most at risk.
In the UK Chancellors Autumn budget in 2018, the government announced new funding for a mental health service and 24-hour hotline, but there have been calls for employers to do more. The Trade Union Congress (TUC) has claimed that work-related stress is a ‘growing epidemic’. They are urging managers to do much more to reduce the causes of stress which means ‘tackling issues like excessive workloads, bullying in the office [because] toxic workplaces are bad for staff and productivity’. To progress the agenda, the TUC encourages employers to have work-place conversations about these issues.
I can vouch for the positive power of initiating ordinary, demystifying conversations about stress because this is a common experience in work and life. National statistics in the UK indicate that 1 in 4 people will experience a mental health problem each year and 1 in 6 adults experience a common mental health problem, such as anxiety or depression every week.
However, unless trained, coached or adept in supporting staff through these issues, many managers are not confident about initiating discussions or handling disclosures. On receiving a disclosure, even experienced managers at times may be left thinking ‘now what do I do?’. The good news is you don’t have to be a mental health professional to be able to have positive conversations about stress. In fact, not being a health professional may in fact give you an advantage. Why? Because you don’t need to medicalise what is essentially a common, shared experience across society: ‘being human’ will help you.
Here’s my ‘strategic 3’ for creating a culture to support ordinary conversations about stress and build resilience in yourself and your organisations;
1. Know what stress is - understand what stress feels like and looks like so you are aware when you are stressed. Self-awareness is a foundation of good management and inspirational leadership. Ask yourself how you can demonstrate good habits for the recognition and resolution of stress within your team or department. In other words, ‘walk the walk’. This knowledge and practice underpin culture change, particularly if you aim to engage staff to be part of the change.
2. Know what causes stress - understand the likely causes of stress in the work-place generally. Even better, understand the causes within your teams or department. For example, is there clarity about roles and responsibilities, is the workload manageable, are team dynamics healthy or toxic, are other departments performance outcomes in conflict with yours?
Our work environment has a significant impact on our sense of wellbeing. Check in with staff on how they feel about the ‘space’ and configuration of their work environment. For example, are there ‘time out’ spaces away from workstations that staff can use?
In teams where conversations about challenges are solution focussed, it may be straight forward to identify shared causes of stress. Alternatively, if team dynamics are problematic, you will need to think more creatively about how to gauge, understand and respond, particularly if bullying is an issue.
3. Identify and address the skills and knowledge gaps – in dialogue with staff and utilising mechanisms such as support and supervision, be curious about individual and team developmental needs. Where accessible, utilise in-house resources such as occupational health. Explore options for offering counselling, external supervision or coaching. Seek genuine feedback on what works well and what causes pressure. Invite ideas and solutions on what could be done better and why it’s important.
Consider if the organisational culture supports communication, interaction and collaboration or is there ‘silo’ working? All too often in safeguarding, fatal and serious events happen because communication and professional relationships are stilted or have broken down completely. When your work is preventative or protective, be vigilant for systems and communication blocks as these are the weakest parts of the safeguarding chain.
Cath Kane is a consultant and coach specialising in women’s empowerment and leadership evolution. She has extensive strategic and operational experience in the field of gender-based violence.