Issue 13

STRESSED OUT? LET'S DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT.

By Steve Smith, Lecturer in Mental Health, Robert Gordon University Aberdeen

Stress is endemic in modern life; and while some may argue that this has always have been the case, the relevance of stress to us is in the lives we are living today. I wrote at the start of 2015 about the impact workplace stress is having on Scottish (and indeed UK) industry, and the need for pro-active preventative approaches to stress management. In the UK as a whole, a total of two-hundred and thirty-four thousand people became unwell due to workplace stress last year; that’s greater than the population of Highland and reflects only the 234,000 new cases out of a total of 440,000 cases overall, according to the Health and Safety Executive. Traditional ‘counselling’ approaches are re-active in that they come into play after someone has begun to experience the symptoms of excessive stress - low mood, feelings of anxiety, irritability, poor concentration, changes in sleep pattern and loss of pleasure for example; however, what is required are pro-active approaches that better enable people to manage the stress of daily life, including work.


There are a range of interventions that can be used to help empower people to take positive steps to protect their own mental health and enhance individual resilience. Interventions like solution focused interactions and mindfulness-based stress reduction are both non-traditional health interventions endorsed by most Scottish NHS organisations and used to promote mental wellbeing and resilience. However, the news is not all good.

Resilience is a health-related concept supported by the Scottish Government relating to the protective factors, positive adjustment and resources that moderate illness related risk factors and therefore reduce the impact of risk on outcomes. The study of resilience focuses on questions like, ‘what are the causes and distribution of health and wellbeing in a particular group’ as opposed to ‘what are the causes and distribution of disease and early death in this group’. Resilience is not another term for ‘toughness’, ‘machismo’ or ‘having the right-stuff’ as some management groups might suggest.

However, change in attitudes is always difficult to bring about and in many parts of Scottish industry the management/worker dichotomy is alive and well. For some in the employers sector the emergence of resilience based interventions has been seen as an opportunity to shift the burden of responsibility for mental health and wellbeing onto individual staff members – ‘it’s a stressful job and you don’t have what it takes to carry it out; if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen’. Equally, for some in the employees sector there’s a sense that taking responsibility for our own mental health and wellbeing is in some way letting the employer off-the-hook – ‘that’s not my job; you’ve got a statuary responsibility to protect my health and safety’.

Both groups in such a polarised debate, however, miss the essential point. The responsibility for work-based mental health and wellbeing is a shared responsibility, as are the consequences of failing to take adequate measures for protection. The focus of such a discussion is not of an ‘either/or’ nature (either I’m right or you’re right) but of a both/and nature (I can both protect my interests and help protect yours too); such both/and conversations typify co-operative, co-constructive conversations, and utilise solution focused, rather than problem focused, thinking.

Successful organisations increasingly recognise that complying with, and exceeding, current HSE regulations is essential for both the organisation as a whole and for the individuals within it. However, if complying with HSE regulations was enough to protect the workforce from work-based stress there wouldn’t have been 9.9 million days lost to industry last year and there wouldn’t have been 440,000 people off work with work-based stress related conditions; something more is needed.

A new vision is required, a vision that some organisations are already sharing in, a vision generated by salutogenic, solution focused conversations based on where we want to go and how we will know when we’re there. Solution focused conversations start with the assumption that we share the same common goals; in terms of work-based stress this is especially true. The consequences for organisations have already been highlighted, 9.9 million lost days at an estimated cost to employers of £1.1 billion, and the Health & Safety Executive acknowledge that the incidence and prevalence of stress related absence ‘have remained broadly flat for more than a decade’. For the individual the consequences can be catastrophic, distress, loss of self-esteem and a sense of stigmatisation are just some common experiences; in light of which, the argument that ‘it’s not my job’ becomes akin to refusing to put on a survival suit because ‘you shouldn’t have sunk the boat’. In short, we share a common interest in doing everything that can be done to reduce stress factors in the workplace while promoting resilience to the workplace stress that cannot yet be eradicated.

Building on that common interest we can begin to explore what that positive future will look like, describing in detail what we will be doing to reduce environmental stress as much as we can and what we will be doing to enable us to reduce the impact the remaining stress has upon us. Once we know ‘where we’re going’ we can then begin to measure how close we are to being there, often discovering that there is less to be done to achieve that shared positive future scenario than we had realised. Such, solution focused interactions are being used by successful organisations, globally and across Scotland, to promote not just resilient and mentally healthy people but resilient and mentally healthy organisations.

Steve Smith

By Steve Smith, Lecturer in Mental Health, Robert Gordon University Aberdeen

Issue 13

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