12 Dec It’s time to tackle well-being head-on, like we did with safety
Well-being rightfully deserves the attention usually given to safety alone. In fact it’s a mission close to Tribe’s heart. But in our overstretched, knowledge-based economy, stress-related illness shows no signs of decreasing.
RAND Europe now estimates poor health and well-being costs the UK economy up to £57 billion a year in lost productivity. Yet there still isn’t a corresponding appetite, or abundance of resources to help fix the problem.
So, what if there were clear ways each of us could foment parity between health and safety? Lizz Fields-Pattinson, Occupational Psychologist at Tribe, thinks there are. And you should look no further than how we shifted attitudes to safety.
“Sadly, we’ve made little progress reducing the number of people off with work-related stress, since the HSE formalised the idea it should be risk-assessed like any other hazard in the workplace, back in 2004. The figures haven’t really gone up but they certainly haven’t got any better.
“H&S teams recognise people have issues with stress, but they often don’t know if they should tackle it or leave HR to deal with it – so it slips through the net.
“The issue is many of us have learned to thrive on stress and think that that’s just how life should be in a modern workplace, and there’s acceptance that a lot of this is inevitable. There’s even evidence to show people turn up to work and do what they can, however ill they feel – ‘presenteeism’ it’s called. It’s dangerously unhealthy when working flat-out like this becomes the norm.
“The HSE’s updating their management standards tool next February, I believe. But the real surprise for me is not much seems to have changed overall in everyone’s attitude to health and well-being at work. People agree it’s what we all need to focus on next, but the challenge seems overwhelming.
“I can see why – stress is a strange concept. It’s intangible and it feels too difficult to measure. I think for many people there’s too many different, complicated factors involved. I’m often told you can ask one person to do something and they’ll feel stressed by it, but ask their colleague and they’ll take it in their stride.
“In my experience, solutions to work-related stress tend to be tried in isolation, and not looked at as a core way of working. It’s still not being tackled head-on in the way we do with safety.
“With the crunch still hitting companies hard, cut-backs and people doing a job-and-a-half to cover the gaps, it can only get worse. I realise they’re doing what they have to do to survive. But really, looking after your staff and reducing lost time through stress is a really smart way to save money in the long-run because it means less disruption to your business.”
Ask yourself: does it really have to be this way?
“We all have to tackle this attitude – that people expect to feel under too much pressure; that everyone has to push themselves to go the extra mile, and that’s just the way it is. It feels like many of us think there’s not a lot we can do about that – when in fact there is.
The fact is we’ve got a much better idea of what contributes to stress, and what we should be aiming for to make the workplace a more healthy environment.
“I guess the question you’ve got to ask yourself here is ‘does it really have to be this way?’ With people being glad they’ve caught some nasty bug or been in a minor accident, because it’s the only legitimate way they can get time off to catch up with themselves.
“Where do we go from here? Let’s not shy away from this. We know for a fact that people who are engaged, healthy and enjoying their jobs are on average 30 days more productive, over a year, compared to people off ill because their immune systems are compromised from stress.
“The shift we need to see is something similar to back when companies realised the money they could save from reducing lost-time injuries. Like accidents, it means identifying where you’re at – what stress costs now, and will cost you in future because of all the problems building up, then look at where you need to be.
“Then there’s a shift in responsibility. You can’t buy in a wellness program with a helpline and fruit bowls and think you’ve got the problem solved. A lot of these things are good but they mustn’t be the only thing you do.
“Culturally, you can’t just keep sticking bigger and bigger plasters on the cut and hope it’ll go away. Staff still look inside their organisation for what is and isn’t acceptable.”
Change begins with leaders
“It’s leaders who can encourage their staff to speak up, manage their managers, who say that taking work home isn’t OK. And it’s leaders who can say ‘not everything has to be perfect all the time’ and take the pressure off their people. They need to recognise that human beings only have a limited capacity for attention, and once that’s taken we start to make mistakes.
“There’s a lot we can do to help leaders understand how people process stress, and the physical symptoms that follow. What people are prone to doing is making problems a lot more stressful than they need to be, in the way we visualise consequences, what we perceive we can control, and how we cope.
“You can help people spot when they do that. You manage it by making lines of communication clearer, and increasing time for planning and review so people get accurate feedback on tasks and keep things in perspective.
“We realised all this with safety. We changed our minds about what is and isn’t acceptable. If a machine’s not fit for purpose and risks someone getting hurt, people know they can say something and it’ll probably get fixed. So let’s do the same when people feel overworked.
“The start we need to see is more leaders putting their hands up, saying enough’s enough – ‘you know what I feel stressed too, we need to do something about this’. It’s just unfortunate that some think this involves admitting defeat.
“I think as older leaders retire, and the generation beneath rises to the top, with different ideas about work-life balance, we’ll see more of a change. We’ve already moved away from that 80s high-pressure work environment but we’ve still got to leave behind that mindset that how many hours you put in is a good measure of commitment.
“But radical change happened with safety – we’re world leaders in the UK after all, now we need to repeat that with health and well-being.”