The solution to work related stress is not training for all staff in resilience and mindfulness, but to grasp the nettle and invest in proper assessment and development of your leaders to create a climate of respect, caring and support. This is not at the expense of performance. It is how you deliver performance consistently over time – addressing the root cause and not just the effect.
Back in 2003 we were talking to a number of public and private sector organisations and some very well known subject matter experts about the solution to a huge problem they were facing. We were discussing work related stress and the cost to UK plc.
At the time we were proposing a simple and robust solution that was well researched and proven. Our positioning of the problem and how to resolve it was accepted by the SME’s and by those in government with responsibility for the issue, yet the solution was never adopted. Why was nothing done?
The reason was clear. To implement a sensible solution to managing stress was to accept responsibility! This was not something most organisations had the courage to do. More of why later.
A decade on and we now have a trendy term for the issue we were attempting to address. Like most things it is a re-invention or reframe of what we have known for thousands of years but now we call it mindfulness and we speak not of stress, but of resilience.
It is now acceptable to manage stress at work. Organisations public and private, run mindfulness workshops and teach employees resilience. It is worth millions to the training industry. You might think this is good. At one level it is. However, we believe it is very dangerous and perpetuates something much more concerning. One might say it is a deceit or lie or, perhaps an abdication of responsibility.
By simply shifting the emphasis away from the organisation and its leaders and placing the focus on the employee to manage and mitigate work related stress we are putting a sticking plaster on a festering wound. More concerning is the shifting of blame away from those causing the stress and onto the victim.
Don’t get us wrong, the training is good and it does help individuals manage stress better if delivered well. It is however nothing new. Mindfulness in one form or another has been around for thousands of years in eastern cultures. More concerning is it is focusing on the effect not the cause.
The HR communities new found love of resilience training and mindfulness might make organisations feel they are fulfilling their duty of care and fixing a problem. But, where is the evidence?
Are we seeing a large drop in work related stress? The answer is a big NO.
According to the charity Mind we are losing £100bn a year or put another way, nearly 10% of the UK's gross national product is lost each year due to job-generated stress.
The TUC reported that 58% of workers complained of being stressed because of their job.
Richard Brook, Chief Executive of Mind, called for more openness about stress and mental health problems in the workplace. He said "Today's competitive and pressured work environments can make it difficult for people to disclose mental health or work stress problems without the fear of affecting their career prospects,". The government should take a lead in tackling the stigma that is commonly attached to mental ill health.”
Sadly they are not and stress continues unchanged in a decade. What has changed is employers shifting the problem in other ways. Zero hour and fixed term contracts, use of contractors, gig working etc. a long list of ways to minimize the risk of litigation and abdicate responsibility.
What we have done as a society is interesting. Slowly and almost unwittingly, we have succeeded in normalising the problem and we have come to accept work related stress as normal and something people just have to learn to cope with! Employers have shifted the focus from them and their duty of care to the employee and with it the blame. Now if someone is sick with stress, they are the weak link, they are less resilient than someone else. This is wrong and fails to address the elephant in the room. All this at the same time as we are starting to talk more openly about mental health and we are finally recognizing and trying to put in place systems to prevent or mitigate PTSD and the like.
There are two major causes of work related stress and neither relate to hard work. Over-work is a cause of strain not stress!
According to Dr M Mills (2003); The first cause is a lack of meaning or purpose in the work. This may explain why depression and other stress related illnesses are an order of magnitude greater in the homeless, unemployed and those in low level roles to management and professional grades. It might also explain the much greater prevalence of stress in the public sector as reported by the HSE.
“Stress is more prevalent in public service industries, such as education; health and social care; and public administration and defence.”
The second major factor is lack of control. Lack of control over your lower order needs (physiological, security and belonging ) explains PTSD on the battlefield as it does stress in the workplace and is often characterized by highly autocratic and power distance cultures. Interestingly the self-employed reportedly work the longest hours and have the lowest levels of reported stress. What they do have is autonomy and freedom to act on their own decisions.
At work the single biggest cause of in relation to the factors above and work related stress is the relationship the employee has with their line manager. It is poor leadership and direction combined with the change from meaningful work to a service culture that leads to a lack of meaning and purpose. In the past we built things. We created physical manifestations of our ideas and effort. We could see the result of our graft. Today, many of us work in a service business and leave work every day worrying about what we have not done rather than what we have achieved.
Exit interviews tell us that we ‘join organisations and leave managers’. Command and control style leadership causes us to feel we have no control which, leads to distress, which leads to illness.
In every organization we visit, where you see high levels of sickness /absence you will find a manager who unknowingly or knowingly is the cause of the problem.
“ The main work factors cited by respondents as causing work related stress, depression or anxiety were workload pressures, including tight deadlines and too much responsibility and a lack of managerial support”
For the past thirteen years we have integrated our approach to stress management, under the radar, into our leadership, management, team and individual coaching solutions with great effect. In one well known retail organization we saved over £1m in recruitment cost by reducing staff turnover from 25% to less than 5% This was not the purpose but a benefit and additional ROI of training emerging managers to be mindful of the impact they have on motivation and performance.
The solution to work related stress is not training for all staff in resilience and mindfulness, but to grasp the nettle and invest in proper assessment and development of your leaders to create a climate of respect, caring and support. This is not at the expense of performance. It is how you deliver performance consistently over time.
Further information on Stress in the UK
According to the HSE latest figures
In 2015/16 stress accounted for 37% of all work related ill health cases and 45% of all working days lost due to ill health.
The total number of cases of work related stress, depression or anxiety in 2015/16 was 488,000 cases, a prevalence rate of 1510 per 100,000 workers.
The number of new cases was 224,000, an incidence rate of 690 per 100,000 workers. The estimated number and rate have remained broadly flat for more than a decade.
The total number of working days lost due to this condition in 2015/16 was 11.7 million days. This equated to an average of 23.9 days lost per case.
Stress is more prevalent in public service industries, such as education; health and social care; and public administration and defence.
By occupation, jobs that are common across public service industries (such as healthcare workers; teaching professionals; business, media and public service professionals) show higher levels of stress as compared to all jobs.