Tackling stress – is a bowl of fruit really the answer?

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November 6th, 2013

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With ‘Going the extra mile` the theme for this year’s National Stress Awareness Day, it is worth us stopping for a moment and considering what, in fact, that means and in what circumstances it might be good or bad for us. It is also worth us considering the health and wellbeing agenda more widely and the current conditions the UK workforce finds itself in.

‘Going the extra mile` implies doing something additional or extra for the benefit of the organisation. What is quite clear from our Management Agenda survey is that many managers find themselves working longer hours than they are contracted to, and experience managing workload as a major challenge. In that sense, it seems that not only is ‘Going the extra mile` commonplace, it might also in some ways be bad for us. It might also be bad for the organisations we work for. CIPD’s latest Employee Outlook suggests that the labour market is improving, and job seeking intentions are at their highest since 2011. Unless organisations provide the conditions in which their employees can flourish, many may well decide to seek pastures new. Where ‘Going the extra mile` might be considered good for us is where we do something extra or additional out of a sense of shared purpose and values with the organisation we work for, and feel that the organisation will also do something for us. A sense of fairness and reciprocity is central to the sustainment of any healthy relationship.

National Stress Awareness Day also provides a chance for us to reflect on what really makes the difference to people at work. There is always a lot of focus in the general and trade press about diet, exercise and healthy living. They all are, of course, important. But these considerations often dwarf and drown the importance of social factors in the workplace for health. Launching a free yoga session at lunchtime is attractive because it is relatively easy compared with improving the quality of leadership and management within an organisation. Offering a bowl of fruit is, likewise, somewhat easier compared to ensuring that employees have a sense of control over how their work is done and a feeling that there are opportunities to progress. It is also all too easy to place the burden of responsibility on the employees’ door, and to suggest that the answer is that they develop better mechanisms for coping with stress. Whilst developing greater personal resilience is undoubtedly of benefit, focussing on the individual to the exclusion of the nature of work and its organisation is a potentially dangerous game to play.

With the green shoots of recovery now seemingly protruding from the ground, and both retention and managing talent now firmly back on the agenda, it is imperative that organisations focus on what they can do to make work supportive of wellbeing. In short, this means work that both offers challenge but also a degree of control and support, and where the effort demanded is somehow in balance with the rewards, financial or otherwise, on offer. And without question, this means better, more enlightened leadership. A leadership focussed on outputs not inputs, and one focussed on autonomy and engagement not command and control.