You can lead a stressed horse to water……

England’s Trades Union Congress (TUC) released results of a survey of union representatives on 24 February 2011 that shows that workplace stress is

“now by far the most common health and safety problem at work.”

Even taking into consideration the inherent bias of such union surveys of reps, the figures are significant.  The 24 February 2011 media release states:

“Nearly two thirds (62%) of reps say that stress is in the top five problems faced by the workers they represent and more than a quarter of reps (27%) pick out stress as the hazard at work that most concerns them.  Another recent report from the British Academy states that the global economic downturn is to blame for the soaring stress levels due to the sharp rise in job strain and job-insecurity; both determinants of work-related stress. In the last 2 years, work stress levels rose by more than 4%, compared to the previous rises of 0.1% from 1992 to 2009.” [link added]

So what can be done to reverse this trend?

If the global economic downturn has generated increased stress levels, OHS practitioners and activists need to look at the big picture and begin pushing for better economic health – an action that, outside of the union movement, hardly ever gets a mention.

If OHS principles are based around the need to eliminate hazards then OHS professionals should be strong advocates of sustainable development where the mental health of workers needs as much support for sustainability as the environment receives, if not more.

So what is being done to reverse this trend?

Coincidentally on 24 February 2011, the European Commission released a progress report on its work-related stress agreement.  The success of the agreement has been that, in those Member States who have co-operated, there is an increased awareness of the importance of work-related stress.  But awareness is not control.  OHS regulators are leading the horse to water but it is not drinking.  The well-established damage that stress is causing can only be reduced by action. The horse must drink.

But to control stress, social change is required and it is the magnitude of this challenge that beats the OHS regulators.

In many ways strategies to control psychosocial hazards, such as stress, reflect strategies to control the environmental impacts of climate change.  It is becoming very clear that the Western World cannot maintain its current high standard of living without further damaging the global climate.  Decisions must be taken that will reduce that standard of living of society for the sake of  the planet.  This change in social values and expectations has forged a path that, understandably, “brave” OHS regulators must eventually follow.

An individual who has suffered harm from work-related stress will take little comfort in the achievement of increased awareness of the hazard in others.  They want, and deserve, the harm to be minimised or eliminated.  The task of OHS professionals is to prevent harm and harm from work-related stress cannot be achieved without cultural and organisational change at individual workplaces and across industry sectors.  To echo the paragraph above – It is becoming very clear that the Western World cannot maintain its current high standard of living without further damaging the mental health of many of its workers.  Decisions must be taken that will reduce the level of profit of companies for the sake of  the mental health of workers.

To some extent, the impacts of psychosocial hazards and work-related stress have already been established.  We are now at a similar stage in workplace mental health issues to that already experienced on other health issues, such as smoking and asbestos.  The harm has been established and the next stage is to make the hard decisions that require give and take.  Someone will need to reduce their expectations of profitability and economic growth for the sake of a sustainable and profitable workforce.

Who will be that first brave pioneer of mental health?

Kevin Jones

7 thoughts on “You can lead a stressed horse to water……”

  1. For those wanting the links that I mentioned in an earlier comment, here they are:
    http://www.robertsoncooper.com/Pages/Resources/Case-Studies.aspx

    Also, the ABC Catalyst programme flew to the UK in Sept 1997 to report on the Robertson Cooper approach. According to them, it is one of the few, scientific approaches to stress in the workplace that is available. The transcript is available:
    “Workplace Stress – Stopping the Juggernaut” http://www.abc.net.au/catalyst/stories/s2025212.htm

    Regards
    Lyndal

  2. I think stress, like other invisibles like fatigue, is one of those OHS issues which is often overlooked by professionals when managing health and safety in the workplace. From my limited experience, I\’ve found in Australia most companies (and probably the rest of the world) tend to be reactionary rather than preventative meaning that real issues of stress can slowly creep up and then become a really big issue. A story of a colleague who was once upon a time a high performing employee of the police hostage negotiator unit comes to mind. Whilst an key active of the unit for 8 years during his 30\’s, he seemingly \’suddenly\’ had a post-traumatic stress breakdown and needed to be discharged never to return. We all have times of stress in our work lives, but companies need to actively promote ways and a culture where their employees can discharge stress in positive ways in order that events such as our police friend are mitigated.

  3. Yes, stress is the #1 cause of absence illness in the UK, ahead of back pain. There is headway in the UK to deal with it and we in Aust can learn from it. The Health & Safety Executive has compliance powers, if stress is not being addressed. As a result organisations are assessing levels of stress and putting successful interventions in place. Look at http://www.robertsoncooper.com for case studies. I can provide more information for anyone who is interested.

  4. Good luck with this one, the mere fact we live in a capitalist society ramps up the stress meter.

    If you want the real definition of stress visit the Sales Representatives (whatever title has been bestowed on them to make them feel valued) and ask what stress is about. Most work 45 to 50 hours per week or more to try and get the job done, yet are paid a so called income that takes this into account (you work until the job is done) but it never is, because the sales budgets set by the powers that be, albiet with the Reps input, are largely at the top end of attainability.

    What happens if they miss their budgets consistently because of reasons beyond their control including the ability of the employer to support them effectively? The answer is usually a performance review with a warning that their continuing employment is on unstable ground. Such is life as a Sales Rep and I suspect in many other areas of employment.

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