Monday 14 July 2014

Stress: let's call it what it is!

Let's call it what it is. Stress. Not resilience. Not wellbeing. Stress.

I hear on a regular basis, that "Stress doesn't exist"... Or... "We don't use the word in this organization, we prefer to call it resilience"... Or... "It comes under our positive wellbeing policy"... Or some other corporate-speak like that. Apparently, talking about (or offering services related to) stress management is not the thing to do any more. It's become unfashionable, it's too negative.

Mostly this view seems to be held by people in HR or 'Organizational Development'. This is not to say that all HR or OD people share this outlook. Far from it. It's just that this 'corporate wellbeing world view' is more prevalent in this group.

In my opinion, where this view prevails, it can totally undermine the credibility of HR, leading to suspicion, cynicism and a lack of trust amongst the workforce. It just doesn't reflect the reality of people's experience at work. The rest of us KNOW stress levels are higher now than they've been. And this is overwhelmingly borne out by the evidence.

I've come across similar views from service providers. The received marketing wisdom (with which I profoundly disagree) is that we need to call it wellbeing because clients are looking for a more, positive 'holistic' approach and therefore (the argument goes) we should be framing our offering in a more positive light. If we call it stress, they won't buy our services. Again this appears to be because service providers are working predominantly with, or through, HR/OD.

I haven't found this to be the case at all. I've never been busier. Maybe it's because I work a lot with Occupational Health and Health & Safety professionals and they have a different focus and remit. I don't work solely with HR/OD (although I find that many HR folk are still very concerned about stress).

With my business hat on too, my experience strongly indicates that stress remains a hot topic, and with good reason. It's bad and has got much worse, especially since the last recession. And it's costing organizations a fortune. (I've included a great resource related to the costs of stress towards the end of this blog post.). Maybe you could sum up my business take on this as...

Big problem + Huge Cost + Available Solutions = Obvious Marketing Opportunity???

Why have stress levels increased so much? I think some of the reasons are work-related and some aren't.

Organizations are doing more with less and people are working harder and longer than ever. And this trend has accelerated since the credit crunch in 2008. In previous recessions, we saw big increases in unemployment as organizations cut costs by shedding staff. The last recession was different. Having found how expensive it was previously first to lose, then recruit and retrain skilled staff, organizations opted this time to retain staff but make efficiencies and cuts in other areas. As a result, employees are now under more pressure with less control and fewer resources.

And it's not simply what's happened at work. A whole series of trends have increased stress levels. I'm going to explore some of these in future blog posts, but here are some headings:
  • The polarized and frankly bizarre property market where in some parts of the country people can't afford to live anywhere near where they work, while in others prices have collapsed meaning people are stuck in negative equity and cannot move.
  • Partly related to the above, the increased pressure in middle age from the trends towards adult children never leaving combined with increased caring responsibilities for elderly parents, known endearingly as the 'sandwich generation'.
  • Again related to the above, increased commuting pressures with longer commutes on overcrowded, excessively expensive trains.
  • The rapidly ageing working population combined with the collapse in the value of pensions. We're having to work longer at an age when we inevitably experience more chronic illness.
  • The huge and growing proportion of us that has very little or no pension provision in any case (and many of us are very concerned about this!).
  • The high inflation that has affected basics and essentials, like food, electricity and gas, meaning that those with low or middle incomes have become disproportionately poorer in recent years. Increased financial stress in other words.
  • Reduced physical activity leading to 'vastly' increased levels of obesity and associated chronic illness, especially diabetes
  • An increasing lack of social support at work and at home and more isolation, leading to high levels of loneliness and depression.
  • Increases in the use of technology, especially smartphones and tablets, meaning that we are always available (and our own bad habits in this regard - sleeping with them, always checking them - make this worse).
  • Reductions in the quantity and quality of sleep, related to many of the factors above.
  • Huge increases in stress-related illness (which is not an accident), including mental illness and physical illness, one notable example being the increase in autoimmune diseases due to chronic inflammation.
  • Increases in self-medication (stress management using alcohol), fuelled by heavily discounted supermarket booze. Alcohol, unlike food and electricity, has never been cheaper in real terms. So we're drinking much more, usually at home. It's an 'invisible problem' with major health effects.
  • Increasingly flexible working patterns with more lone and remote working. Our working environments are also becoming more 'lean', with more open-plan and more hot-desking.
  • Less secure employment, more short- and part-time contracts and more zero-hours contracts. More pressure to work longer, to be seen to be there, even if we're feeling bad. 'Presenteeism' in other words.
These trends are well-researched and understood, Just google any of them as I did and you'll find a mountain of research evidence and reports. I'll highlight some of these in future posts.

There are other stress-increasing trends, but I hope I've made my point.

I'll finish this blog post with one great resource. It's a report called: Calculating the cost of work-related stress and psychosocial risks. In my view, it should be essential reading. It comes from the European Agency for safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA) and highlights both what the costs of stress are (not just in Europle, but also in the USA, Australia and Canada) and how such costs can easily be calculated.

You can download the report from the costs of stress page on my website, where you'll also find some additional tools and resources related to the organizational costs and the benefits of taking action. As the report says in its conlusion: "Studies indicate that there is a strong ‘business case’ for preventing stress and psychosocial risks at work".

So you can call it what you like. I'll call it stress because that's what it is.

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