4 minute read

Stress: the silent problem within local government that you may never notice

Spending cuts, increased workloads and job insecurity: no wonder public health workers are more likely to suffer mental health illness compared to those in the private sector. Stress expert Carole Spiers offers some tips on identifying and managing stress


The Background

Stress and mental health in local government is often in the news but it isn’t a new problem. Pressure is part and parcel of all work and helps to keep us focused and motivated. But excessive pressure can lead to stress which undermines performance, is costly to the public sector and can make people ill. A survey by the mental health charity Mind has reported in the BMJ that public health workers are more likely to be suffering from mental health illnesses compared with those in the private sector, while they are less likely to feel supported when they disclose these problems.

The need to tackle stress is recognised in UK law. Under the Health and Safety at Work Action 1974 and the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulation [1999], employers are obliged to undertake a risk assessment for health hazards at work – including stress – and to take action to control that risk.

Organisations have a duty of care to uphold towards their staff and failure to put effective measures in place to prevent, or at least give access to immediate assistance, can often lead to heavy financial penalties.

The Challenge

Every council will have its own stress fingerprint and with an increased workload, high rising levels of stress can be exacerbated by feelings of job insecurity, prolonged uncertainty and threats of further spending cuts.

This can lead to:

● Low morale

● Loss of confidence

● Physical harm and injury

● Low staff retention

● High absenteeism

● Loss of talent

All of these will affect the bottom line and spirit of the organisation.

The Solution: build a healthy workplace culture

The solution is not rocket science and does not need to be a costly intervention. Many councils will already have interventions in place such as an EAP counselling service, mental health first-aiders and health and wellbeing initiatives. However, these interventions will not work unless stress is identified at the frontline. The frontline is, of course, line management, team leaders, supervisors and, in fact ,all individuals who have responsibility for other employees.

They are the ones whose role it is to manage their teams, look out for early signs of stress, make time to talk to them and introduce whatever interventions might be needed to support them. The sooner the manager makes the time to talk to them about what they can do to help, the sooner the employee will get back to full performance and productivity.

Wellbeing habits

Managers must appreciate that they can’t look after their team members if they don’t look after themselves. Leading by example and having good wellbeing habits in the workplace is key to reducing absenteeism and getting their teams to thrive. If a manager keeps their email on 24/7 and expects their employees to respond every time they write to them, they are setting a very poor example and putting their employees under unnecessary pressure.

Managers are busy people. And busy people are quite able to ignore their own signs of stress and then find themselves on the road to burnout. It can happen to anyone at any time.

Your body may break down and although you might get back to some form of work again, it might not be in the same capacity as before.

So, what are the signs of burnout?

● Fatigue

● Inability to concentrate

● Increased anxiety

● Anger management issues

● Lack of motivation

● Severe health issues

● Prolonged absenteeism

● Lack of care with appearance

● Overuse of alcohol, medication and recreational drugs

However, it is important to remember that no two people will necessarily experience the same signs and symptoms.

Walking the talk

Line managers are often the first port of call when an employee has a problem. With the right communications skillset, they will have the capability and confidence to tackle sensitive conversations with an employee, intervene when they can, and signpost to supportive interventions that may be required.

Managing people and being perceptive about their needs is key to a healthy workplace culture. Managers may say that they don’t have the time to listen to their teams or don’t have the skillset to do so. Let us not forget that many managers are promoted into managerial positions because of their technical ability and not because of their people management skills. Accepting the promotion is easy and the realisation that they must manage 50 people may not dawn on them until they are fully ensconced in the job.

If managers lack the listening skills to communicate with their teams, it’s only a matter of getting trained. Leaders who support a listening skills culture will enjoy a more productive and profitable team. If leaders know how to look after their people, they will look after their team objectives which will drive the bottom line.

What next?

Managing stress takes practice and discipline. It doesn’t come naturally to everyone as there are so many different calls on our time. However, it is vital to make mental wellbeing an everyday habit and make sure that organisations are building personal and team resilience to manage the ‘21st century overwhelm culture’. Work stress may be out of our control but the resilience to manage it is within our control.

As a manager, having the right mindset will carry you forward. Don’t be an invisible force around the office. Don’t be the manager who says ‘my door is open’ but always has it closed! Walk the talk and engage with your staff. Employees like to feel valued and appreciated.

Turn a culture of ME into a culture of WE and put a healthy workplace culture, wellbeing and work-life balance top of your agenda. Unsure of how to develop a culture of wellbeing in the workplace?

Take a look at my most recent article which explains the benefits of wellbeing and ways to promote it. Don’t sweep stress-related issues under the carpet and think they will go away. Odds are they won’t!

Carole Spiers, pictured, is chair of the International Stress Management Association UK and founder of International Stress Awareness Week. She has been CEO of a UK stress management consultancy for 25 years and author of ‘Show Stress Who’s Boss!’ and Tolley’s Managing Stress in the workplace

Carole Spiers

Published 4 September 2019
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