Despite better education and generally good access to support services, stress has become more widespread in UK workplaces and is rising along with growing concern over violence and threats.
The TUC’s 2016 survey of over 1000 health and safety representatives asked them to rate the hazards at work that were most troubling to their workforces. They found that stress
“stands out more than ever as the chief health and safety concern, identified as a top-five hazard by 70% of safety representatives in the survey.”
I wonder how much of this “stress” results from critical incidents such as assaults, violence, robberies, accidents or deaths in the workplace? Or secondary trauma in the health and caring professions?
Stress is such a generic and familiar term that it can be easy to dismiss as a modern, inevitable disease that everyone has. Cue the rolling eyes when it is even mentioned in some settings!
Yet the impact on the person, physically, emotionally and mentally, can be devastating along with the ripple effect on families and wider society. The organisation itself suffers with sickness absence, lower morale and poor productivity amongst some of the consequences. There is clearly a financial, legal and moral case to reduce it.
So what is behind this trend? And what can organisations do to reverse it?
92% of safety representatives say their organisation provides an occupational health service – although the construction sector bucks this figure with around 50% saying their employer provided such services. So access to support and advice on stress isn’t the simple answer.
Perhaps it’s the thorny issue of encouraging people to access such support. Cultural issues, stigma and the stereotypes of “counselling” create reluctance along with practical barriers such as time, location, accessibility. Not everyone wants to talk about their experience and there is a lack of good, solid psycho-education around trauma responses. All these were driving forces behind the development of the Power to Recover trauma programme that supports people after a critical incident.
Maybe organisations are passing the responsibility to support services and forgetting they have a role to play in creating healthy cultures? I know many managers (often stressed themselves!) who refer an employee to the EAP or occupational health and consider they have done all they can. Or offer “counselling” or … well, actually that’s the only option on offer – a case of “no help” or “professional” help. This in itself adds to the stigma and medicalising of a problem.
The truth is that most people want to be supported by someone who they know rather than a professional stranger – or should that be a strange professional? Properly trained managers can be the organisation’s first line of defence against increasing stress following a traumatic event.
The majority of organisations don’t tap into this resource because they think they need an “expert” and call in counsellors and psychologists or send staff to see a therapist. I’m certainly not saying that you shouldn’t have professional support in place but good social support is crucial and managers have unique strengths when it comes to helping their team bounce back.
They can bring
- A non-stigmatising source of human support
- A common life experience and ethos
- An understanding of the organisational culture, language and jargon
- Availability and ability to create rehabilitation plans
- An understanding of the “big picture” and very importantly
Managers are not experts on mental health though.
They need to be aware of how to support their staff, what to do and most importantly, what NOT to do. They can be taught how to offer vital psychological first aid and learn when and where to refer those who need it for further support – this means that people are more likely to access those professional services when they need it.
Power to Recover training courses teach managers these vital skills and you can find out more at
One thing is definite, if we’re going to tackle this problem, we need to do things differently. What organisations are doing now is generally not working.
Taking back some of the responsibility actually empowers the organisation and can have a positive impact on culture and organisational wellbeing.