A week or so ago I had the opportunity to attend the Health and Wellbeing conference inWhitehall. An eminent panel of speakers gathered including Lord Freud, Dr Steve Boorman, Dame Carol Black to name a few.
Whilst the focus of the agenda was on longer term strategies to end “worklessness” in people with long term conditions and/or disability, especially where this is nonsensical because there is capacity to continue working, what interested me most about the day was the opportunity to speak with other delegates and hear speakers, for example from Health and Safety Executive on insights into stress and stress related conditions and its impact in the workplace.
My interest was piqued for a number of reasons, I often find myself face to face with people unwell with stress, they are either going off sick, trying to come back to work or discussing their perception of how work has contributed to their illness.
Stress was highly topical on the day of the conference, it coincided with the publication of the CIPD survey and report on stress that indicated that it is reaching epidemic proportions among workers, and unsurprisingly the current economic climate is considered to be directly linked to the reported spike in stress related illness.
Dealing with Stress, Anxiety and Depression in the workplace has long been a concern to me. In a previous role I attempted to tackle it head on, appalled at the levels of both short term/frequent absences attributed to stress as well as the long term and debilitating levels of stress and depression, I ran a small workplace audit to try to get to the bottom of it. Environment, workload, management style, the way change is managed, lack of communication, bullying and harassment were all cited as at the root of many people’s stress… and this was before the current economic pressures.
Frustrated by the apparent inability to spot when someone was displaying early signs of stress to take preventive measures, equally frustrated by the apparent impotence of everyone involved, Line Managers, Occupational Health, GP’s, HR etc to be able to support people in a constructive and timely manner, all too often too many of those people were turning into long term health statistics. With limited resources my response was high input individual case management, workplace mediation and some limited training focussing on self awareness and insight for line managers, with a longer term aim to reduce the workplace conflict and the reported stress as a result. We did have some success, but it has to be the job of more than one person, everyone has got to want to address the workplace conditions.
Stupidly optimistic that I would find someone at the conference with the answer, the previous statement now seems highly aspirational. Discussions with a variety of health professionals, and hearing the experts speak leads me to conclude that we do all know what the underlying problems are; management style, attitudes and approach to change and inadequate communication and an unwillingness to have difficult conversations, set against an expectation in people of how we should experience our working life that just do not meet in the middle, those expectations are now so divergent of the accepted model of fit note and occupational health that any changes we do make are simply tinkering around the edges.
The HSE speaker was absolutely right when she said that since the Act, we’ve really got the “safety” aspects right – because we can see physical hazard, we can say what should be done and put a fix in place. As the workplace changes and we are a people and knowledge based economy, the focus does now need to be on “health” in its broadest sense, and that means in the “soft” human stuff.
We didn’t get to this place overnight, and so the solution cannot be a quick fix either. In the meantime to change something we need to start doing something different, a different approach to wellness, so I for one will be putting my eggs into a different basket by saying that I think that wellness needs to begin with the individual, and so to take responsibility and re-educate so that we don’t end up in those dreadful catch 22 conversations, I’m going to be looking for a great learning partner to help me meet my Occupational Health objectives.