Workplace stress: an ongoing issue

Blog posts

5 Nov 2015

Sally WilsonSally Wilson

National Stress Awareness Day seems a good time to reflect on the causes and possible prevention measures for stress in the workplace. Whilst workplace stress is not a new topic, applied social research is continually shedding light on the pressures that working people are under and the support they require to manage work and life pressures effectively in order to stay well.

Despite better understanding and awareness of its causes, it’s unlikely workplace stress is going to go away anytime soon. Ongoing austerity measures mean that pressures on the public sector will continue to bite. This will potentially impact on the job demands of frontline and back office staff in a range of roles, and there is evidence that local authorities in particular are bearing the brunt of this. Regarding work/life balance for UK employees more generally, reports suggest that a significant proportion struggle with this, many feeling their situation is worse than it was in 2010. Those juggling demanding personal circumstances with work may find it particularly difficult to achieve a lifestyle compatible with good mental health.

The Institute is currently evaluating two quite different interventions with a bearing on the stresses of working life: one is focused on in-work pressures while the other is primarily concerned with helping people to balance their work with caring responsibilities at home.

The first focuses on the Blue Light Programme, a wellbeing initiative being led by the mental health charity Mind. This aims to address mental health risk factors among emergency services staff and volunteers from police, fire, ambulance and search and rescue services across England (known as Blue Light professionals). Mind’s own (unpublished) research has shown that the estimated quarter of a million people who work and volunteer in the emergency services are significantly more at risk of experiencing a mental health problem than the general population, but are less likely to get support.

Mind has been awarded government LIBOR funding to develop the programme, which aims to make a difference via a number of different mechanisms. These include a ‘Time to Change’ organisational pledge; a Blue Light championing scheme; a psychological resilience-building programme; and other information and awareness-raising activities aimed at combatting stigma, changing attitudes and encouraging positive behavioral changes within the work  environment.

IES is evaluating a package of webinars tailored to professionals working in the four services, and face-to face-training sessions for line managers. The content of the webinar training is primarily aimed at educating and informing Blue Light professionals about the nature of mental health conditions and how they can develop, addressing common myths and misapprehensions. Information is also included to help individuals develop better self-care techniques and help them recognise warning signs in colleagues who may be struggling. The face-to-face training takes these topics a step further, offering guidance on how to manage staff who may be dealing with mental health issues and support their recovery. This may include initiating potentially difficult conversations with people finding it hard to cope. The training also signposts specialist sources of support for situations that require expert clinical input.

The programme has been developed in consultation with individuals from across the emergency services and as such is very sector specific. While there is very clear recognition that pressure can arise from home as well as work, the initiative stems from acknowledged demands that arise when an individual works in an emergency-response role, sometimes against a backdrop of challenging resource constraints typical in the public sector.

A second project we are evaluating, led by the Social Care Institute for Excellence (SCIE), is targeted at workers dealing with potentially challenging circumstances at home, ie working-age carers who care for adults with disabilities and chronic health conditions. This government-funded two-year pilot programme is focused on testing and finding out what works to support carers to remain in employment and economically active.

The work is driven by recognised difficulties carers can face in entering or remaining in the labour market and the disproportionate impact on older women, many of whom will also have had their working lives interrupted by parenting. As well as exclusion from the labour market impacting on their financial position, research conducted by SCIE suggests (as one might expect) that a significant minority of carers experience stress, ‘particularly where the emotional and behavioural needs of the person cared for are great’.

SCIE’s Carers Employment Pilot (CEP) will explore how carers can be supported to combine work alongside caring responsibilities. It will include looking at how to maximise the use of IT and assistive technology, and how carers’ existing skills can be developed to help them become economically active. Nine local authorities in England are rolling out a range of interventions aimed at employers as well as carers, which among other aims, will provide greater peer support and better employment-focused information, advice and guidance to carers. Practical solutions will be explored, such as cover provided by qualified volunteer carers, as well as the use of assistive technology where appropriate: for some carers providing a means of ‘checking in’ (via telecare technology) while they are at work may open up their employment options. At the same time, the teams taking the pilot forward will be making the business case to employers for retaining and recruiting carers in the workforce and demonstrating how offering flexible working can aid retention.

While the pilot’s focus is on employment outcomes, the wellbeing of carers is also an important concern and IES will be exploring the impact of the pilot on potential sources of stress. There is recognition that the decision to return to or enter work will be dependent upon carers having peace of mind that the person they care for continues to receive the support they need. Interviews with carers as well as people being cared for will be conducted to explore these and other, very personal issues. This will inform the holistic approach IES is taking to the evaluation which will also factor in economic and ‘social capital’ impacts.

Taking a broad view of both of these projects, it is clear that both job-specific and personal circumstances need to be taken into account when understanding pressures on individuals who work. It is important to bear in mind that many people will be dealing with both. This highlights the importance of employers providing a supportive environment and recognising the need for many workers to work flexibly. Also while it can be helpful to ‘compartmentalise’ domestic and work stresses from the perspective of specialist agencies who fund initiatives and pilots, researchers and practitioners need to keep the bigger picture in mind and remember that stress rarely has a singular cause.