Nov 5, 2019 | Wellbeing at Work | 0 comments

Work-related Ill Health

Wellbeing at Work | 0 comments

Written by Matt Taylor

The stats are out, the trend is apparent… Work-related stress, depression and anxiety is on the increase.

The HSE work-related ill heath report for 2017/18 was published at the end of October and it indicates that mental health issues showed the steepest climb for over 10 years.

Where musculoskeletal issues were the largest proportion of new and longstanding cases of work-related ill health for 2015/16, in 2017/2018 stress, anxiety and depression take top spot (see charts).

The issues surrounding this problem are not simple, there is no easy fix. Though the report clearly states that workers take time off for reasons such as workload and lack of support, I believe that there are underlying pressures, that for many, tip the balance.

My previous blog about anxiety and youth covers a lot of my opinions about the current climate and the challenges we face in managing life’s pressures. It’s clear that it’s not just the young who are feeling it.

Some would argue that the political climate is a major influence – I would agree. When you turn to the news and the leaders of the world are struggling to lead, you’re bound to feel more unsettled – I know I do. I would liken it to the kids feeling anxious when they look at their parents and the parents are looking lost and worried – now bear with me, don’t react… I am not saying Boris or Trump should be viewed as parents here 😱😖, it’s just an illustration.

The point is, our leaders are appointed to make society-wide decisions which will affect all of us. When they can’t decide or they don’t have the structure to do so, society i.e. you and me, feel unsure of the future.

We all tend to have a greater sense of peace if we know, at least with a good degree of certainty, what is just around the corner. Sadly, on the political front, that doesn’t look likely to be the case for a good while longer.

Managing the uncertainty/certainty balance of life is a whole blog post of its own. Suffice to say, we are all somewhere on a spectrum of how predictable we need life to be to feel settled and how much unpredictability we need to keep things exciting (I feel another post brewing;)

Another concern which many of us face is our job/financial security. Many companies are feeling the pinch when it comes to how efficient they are. Well managed businesses will attend to the budget and regularly figure out where savings can be made. Some companies are simply not very people-centred and job losses may be part of the culture when efficiencies are required. You probably have a good gut-feel for your company. 

When you look at the “workload” stat, it suggests that many feel that too much is being expected of them. Being the owner of a business, this can be a very tricky matter to manage.

Do I want my team to be busy? Definitely! I want them to have a full days’ worth of work every day. I want them to work hard and I do not want them to be wasting paid time on their personal facebook feed or messaging their friends. I think I would feel I was being treated unfairly in our working agreement.

Do I want the team to feel capable of managing their workload? Definitely! Because as soon as they feel like their responsibilities cannot be achieved during their regular workday/workweek,  a conceptual pressure is created which they may not be able to handle in a healthy way. It may be something that can be managed with better training and guidance but ignored or neglected, it could lead to long-term problems.

“if team members are going home and worrying about work.. they will ultimately become less effective and efficient”

What do I mean by a “conceptual pressure”?

A conceptual pressure is a thought which creates unease, a feeling of being unsettled. It’s like a physical pressure but of the mind. Imagine someone pressing their finger (gently though – not too hard) into your neck or throat… it would be unpleasant. It would probably annoy you, definitely would me. It would be difficult to remain focused and would probably distract. A conceptual pressure is similar but it’s an unpleasant thought pressing and troubling the stream of consciousness.

I personally believe it is vitally important for employees to be able to leave work, go home and be able to focus their attention on their loved ones, their friends, their partners, their kids, their parents, their hobbies, their pastimes and all the things that enable them to create a rich experience of life.

If team members are going home and worrying (thinking which leads to a feeling of anxiety) about work, they will struggle to be fully engaged with life. If they struggle to fully engage in life, they will return to work feeling unrested, unsettled and will ultimately become less effective and less efficient.

As an employer, I benefit when team members work hard but not too hard.

when we feel supported in the workplace, we are able to handle more, and thus, the workload issue is also influenced.

“Easy to say but not so easy to practice!”

I agree, it’s not easy, partly because we are not automatons and there is not a fixed and steady work rate for anyone. Some days are better than others because our morning was better or we slept better or breakfast was nicer or the kids behaved better or the new toothpaste tasted nicer. Yes, even the little things can make a difference. And the fact that how we perform is variable makes it difficult to be exacting when it comes to how big a workload should be.

Thankfully, the HSE report also gives a little insight into how we might be able to manage this difficult issue and make a difference in our workplace. This detail could make a huge difference in the quality of a person’s work life and save companies huge amounts of money lost through team members taking time off…

“Lack of support”

A huge 14% of those taking time off work because of stress, anxiety and depression blamed lack of support as the reason.

Some of the other reasons may be less easy to influence. There are times when workloads are very high and it can be difficult to manage. Change, let’s face it, is always going to be around the corner in any competitive environment. I assume violence and threats are not from colleagues but those who you may serve e.g. the remarkable nurses and doctors in A&E being threatened, an awful and traumatic thing to face and quite unpredictable, I imagine (Must say, I can’t tell you how massively impressed I have been with the caring and attentive staff every time I have needed to visit my local Addenbrookes Hospital, if you’re reading this, Thanks you).

However, as business owners, employers, human resources managers, line managers, directors, anybody who has responsibility for looking after others in the workplace, we can make a difference to this stat. We can do better at “support”.

I personally believe that when we feel supported in the workplace, we are able to handle more, and thus, the workload issue is also influenced. When we feel supported,  we feel a greater sense of ease, we feel less worried. This, in turn, allows a greater ability for focus and concentration.

What we are talking about here is care, concern for others, empathy and kindness. You can’t fake this, you can’t carve it into the mission statement and hope that this will be enough. It’s got to come from a place of sincerity and we can all sniff a blagger, someone who says they care but is too caught up in their own troubles to notice another’s. There have been times as a business owner when I have been that person – so focused on my own concerns and pressures that I didn’t notice the burden that members of my team were facing. I think I have grown here but I know there is always room for improvement.

Empathy makes people feel supported. It’s an inherent quality that we are born with, the ability to recognise what another person is going through just by observing their behaviour and facial expressions. You may not be able to diminish a colleague’s workload but you can listen and you can let them know that they have been heard.

This is where contemplative practices such as mindfulness can make a difference to an individuals experience of life and a team’s ability to offer support to each other. Studies have documented the difference this simple practice can make to the way we interact (or transact) with one another. With practice, a person tends to be less reactive, less focused on the short-term and more capable of seeing the big picture when life throws it’s curve-balls at us, which it always does.

In time, as many predict, mindfulness and other forms of meditation will likely be as common a form of self-care as running or going to the gym. When that time comes, we may witness this trend of increased work-related ill health due to mental health issues shift. I hope this blog might contribute in some small way to moving us as a society towards that time.

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Wellbeing… it means different things to different people but one thing is for certain, it means a lot to everyone. We all want to be well, healthy, full of vitality and joy. But life is sometimes tough and there is no such thing as a pain-free life.

Learning to live well, despite the tough times, is key to being happy and fulfilled. This is what this blog is all about.