Shelly Asquith, TUC

Workplace Stress 

If you have an interest in mental health and the workplace, chances are you'll have heard the word 'resilience' thrown around. Resilience, we are told, allows us to harden ourselves to stress and anxiety. You may be familiar with employer-sponsored stress-busting initiatives like mindfulness, exercise or even pet therapy. While none of these activities is a problem per se, the overall approach is. Let me explain why.

'Resilience' strategies are usually an example of organisations failing to tackle the problem of stress at its root cause. Employers ignore that stress is often a result of work itself, requiring a change to work structures and activities, rather than a shift in individuals' behaviours and attitudes. The former requires time and resource, while the latter is a cheaper quick fix.

The problem is stress does not tend to occur randomly but is triggered. Our TUC research indicates that the biggest causes of stress at work are: (i) workload (74%); (ii) cuts in staff (53%); (iii) change at work (44%), and (iv) long hours (39%).

A Widespread Problem

More than 2 million people have a work-related mental health problem, and 70% of union reps report stress as a top safety concern at work.

Statistics from the Health and Safety Executive show that work-related stress, depression or anxiety accounts for 44% of work-related ill health and 54% of working days lost. What's more, many disabled workers have long-term mental health problems which are not work- related but can be exacerbated by working conditions. These overwhelming figures point to structural issues in the way we work – not just problems with workers and their lack of 'resilience.

Training Workers how to Deal with Stress is Not the Answer

Too often, people see their workloads rise but not their pay; and the increasing rate of zero- hours contracts leaves many worried about where they'll get their next pay check.

By focussing on workers toughening up, these campaigns deflect attention from the real causes of stress. The truth is, bosses want us to shoulder the responsibility for protecting our mental health so that they don't have to.

It is not just trade unionists concerned by the narrative but also professionals in the field. Nick Pahl, CEO of the Society of Occupational Medicine says "It is not acceptable for staff to be required to be more 'resilient' - services such as occupational health need to be put in place who, with trade union representatives, can contribute to coordinated workplace health and wellbeing programmes."

Mental health as a Long-Term Disability

Some mental health concerns may not be triggered by working conditions, but rather are long-term illnesses considered a disability. Employers must consider reasonable adjustments for workers in these instances, ensuring adequate support is in place. Again – the responsibility is not on the worker to manage their condition, but on employers to ensure work does not create barriers to managing the condition. Campaigns that invite workers to 'talk' about mental health concerns are not enough. Not only does talk need to be matched with action, speaking out can put workers at risk of discrimination: something a strong union can guard against.

Recommendations

If we want to combat harmful work-related stress, we need to start by changing work, not ourselves. We need employers to invest in policies that monitor and enforce measures to tackle chronic work-related stress and support those experiencing it. Mental health and wellbeing is a collective concern – and just like pay and pensions, they are concerns we can organise around.

Recommendation 1

Mental health assessments should be part of every risk assessment: every workplace and worker could be exposed to dangerous levels of stress. Stress risk assessments – which could look at factors such as workload, targets and hours - are something trade unions can request and campaign for at a workplace level. Employers have a legal duty to remove or reduce stress levels and carry out risk assessments, and so trade unionists have leverage in demanding change.

Recommendation 2

Employers should be encouraged to implement the HSE's stress management standards, which has proved to reduce stress levels in workplaces.

Union reps can make use of the TUC and HSE's joint guide to managing stress, as well as numerous resources from Hazards magazine.

Recommendation 3

Trade unions should organise in the workplace to bargain for better mental health provision, utilising a brand new organising course for union reps developed by the TUC Education Team to be launched later in 2021.

By Shelly Asquith, TUC

Understanding and Overcoming a Mental Health Crisis in 2021

This article is from the new publication Understanding and Overcoming a Mental Health Crisis in 2021: issues for post-16 education, employment, the world of work and retirement’. 

Some of the issues and concerns for mental health discussed existed prior to the pandemic, but Covid-19 has caused additional pressures on young people and adults. 

The authors make specific recommendations to support apprentices and students at colleges, university and in adult learning, as well as people in and out of work.

The important role of education, lifelong learning and good work in promoting mental wellbeing and reducing mental health problems is also addressed. 

Published by the Campaign for Learning, it brings together sixteen specialists from mental health and post-16 education and employment to set out what needs to be done to prevent or limit a mental health crisis in 2021. 

 

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