I have previously written a blog on mental health and how work-related stress has particularly affected me. Given that April is stress awareness month, I thought it might be helpful write another blog with some further reflections on how stress is addressed by my employer, the Welsh Government. Recent developments, following successful negotiations between trade union side (TUS) and the Welsh Government, will hopefully provide members with further help.
The Welsh Government has a Managing Stress and Supporting Personal Well-Being Policy, which sets out how the organisation manages stress. The policy clearly sets out the commitment of the organisation and its legal obligations under health and safety legislation. Details of the broad range of measures the Welsh Government takes to meet these commitments are accessible to all staff on its intranet. Examples range from cancer support information to diversity networks; from flexible working arrangements to exercise and food advice.
While much of this is commendable, there are key issues which are holding the organisation back in making further meaningful progress to reduce stress – specifically, poor risk assessment and control and viewing stress through the lens of well-being, rather than health and safety.
One in four people in Wales will experience mental ill health at some point in their lives. Stress is one of the main causes of mental health problems, in particular anxiety and depression. Evidence indicates that UK workplaces are dealing with an increasing prevalence of stress.
In 2016, the TUC’s biennial survey of more than 1,000 health and safety reps around the UK identified that stress is at the top of the list of workplace health and safety concerns. Seven in 10 reps cited it as a problem – up 3% since the last survey in 2014.
More recently, the Health and Safety Executive published its annual ill health and injury statistics for Great Britain. This showed that the total number of cases of work related stress, depression or anxiety in 2016/17 was 526,000, a prevalence rate of 1,610 per 100,000 workers.
As Frances O’Grady, the TUC’s general secretary, has stated: “It’s in no-one’s interests to have overstretched workforces. People who experience high anxiety are less productive and are more likely to take time off. Stress is preventable if staff have reasonable workloads, supportive managers and a workplace free from violence, bullying and harassment.
The Welsh Government’s response to dealing with stress has three main strands:
- Support – For staff who develop stress-related illness;
- Training – Particularly for line managers. It is aimed at raising awareness about the condition and how to provide support to those with a stress-related condition; and
- Resilience – Available to all staff and usually linked to well-being initiatives.
The problem with this approach, however, is that it focuses on the effects of stress – not the problem. In other words, it tends to treat the symptoms of stress, rather than preventing the causes.
A useful comparison would be to consider a similar model applied to a manual handling issue in a factory, where workers were getting back pain because of the lifting and twisting on a production line. Support, training and resilience may well help (treatment), but probably nowhere near as much reducing the amount of manual handling (prevention).
It is helpful to view stress through the lens of the Welsh Government’s national strategy, Prosperity for All. A key theme is improving the health and well-being of everyone in Wales.
It states: “Our aim is to improve health and well-being in Wales, for individuals, families and communities, helping us to achieve our ambition of prosperity for all, taking significant steps to shift our approach from treatment to prevention.
“Alongside the government, the NHS, schools, housing, local authorities, social care, the voluntary sector and businesses can all help to create an environment where good health is seen as a natural asset for everyone.”
As the organisation responsible for leading on the delivery of Prosperity for All, the Welsh Government has a unique opportunity to take the lead and shift its approach to dealing with stress from one of treatment to prevention. To do so would also be entirely consistent with Prosperity for All.
The recent implementation of a well-being hour in Welsh Government is a small step towards this more preventative agenda. The well-being hour allows employees up to 60 minutes’ additional break a week to pursue activities that support their well-being. The hour can be broken up and spread over the week in any pattern. Securing this as part of our recent pay deal with WG is a notable success for Prospect and TUS. It is certainly new, innovative and progressive for the organisation and something that hasn’t gone unnoticed outside of the Welsh Government in Wales and beyond.
Early indications are that it has been extremely well received by members and staff. People are taking the opportunity to use the hour in varied and interesting ways. Click here to read members’ comments about how they are using the well-being hour and what it means to them.
It is too early to assess the impact of the well-being hour in helping the Welsh Government deal with the complex and, at times, seemingly intractable issue that is stress. Also, TUS are mindful that the well-being hour, in and of itself, should not be seen by the Welsh Government as the magic bullet that will finally see off this monster. It is complex and multifaceted issue that requires significant commitment at every level of an organisation.
To do this effectively, the Welsh Government may wish to consider – just as TUS is pushing for – developing a better understanding of the issue (assessment) and using this “rich picture” as a diagnostic from which to develop more meaningful and effective prevention strategies (control).
The costs of stress to individuals, families, the organisation and the country are significant. Many of the measures the Welsh Government already takes are commendable, not least the well-being hour. But against a backdrop of austerity and Brexit, the pressure on our members will continue to rise, which means that diligence rather than complacency are key to tackling this important issue.