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 UK Health & Safety Executive (HSE)in their 2018 annual summary statistics report released some staggering figures.
There were 26.8 million work days lost to ill health in 2017-18. Of those, 57.3% were lost due to stress, anxiety or depression an increase of 2.9 million from the previous year. The HSE cites workers in the education industry and then social workers as the most at risk.
In the Chancellors Autumn budget in 2018, the government announced new funding for a mental health service and 24-hour hotline. The Trade Union Congress (TUC) has claimed that work-related stress is a ‘growing epidemic’. They are urging employers and 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 talk to their staff about stress, a positive and powerful approach that I can personally vouch for. Demystifying conversations work because the experience of stress in the workplace is common to most of us.
National statistics in the UK indicate that 1 in 4 people will experience a mental health problem each year and 1 in 6 adults experiences a common mental health problem, such as anxiety or depression every week .However, in my experience 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?’. Certainly, I have experienced this myself, particularly while managing teams responsible for reporting violence, abuse and safeguarding concerns.
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’ willhelp 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 what are 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 department’s performance outcomes in conflict with yours? In teams where conversations about challenges are solution focused, it may be straightforward to identify shared causes of stress. Alternatively, if team dynamics are problematic, you may need to think more creatively about how gauge, understand and respond, particularly if bullying is an issue.
3. Identify and address the skills and knowledge gaps– Through support and supervision, identify useful tools, resources and training that support individual or the team. Also know what internal resources are available that offer Information and emotional support such as occupational health. Explore options for offering counselling, external supervision or coaching. Check in with staff on how they feel about the work environment; for example, you may need to create time out’ spaces away from work stations that staff can use.
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) is Britain's national regulator for workplace health and safety. Essentially, its function is to prevent work-related death, injury and ill health.
The Trades Union Congress is the umbrella group for unions in the UK. Some 6.2 million workers belong to the 58 unions which are affiliated.
McManus, S., Meltzer, H., Brugha, T. S., Bebbington, P. E., & Jenkins, R. (2009). Adult psychiatric morbidity in England, 2007: results of a household survey. The NHS Information Centre for health and social care.
McManus S, Bebbington P, Jenkins R, Brugha T. (eds.) (2016). Mental health and wellbeing in England: Adult psychiatric morbidity survey 2014. Leeds: NHS digital.