‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ is how British households were encouraged to cope with the deprivations of the Second World War and the same message of resilience in the face of the stresses and strains of modern living has become a popular catchphrase today.
However, despite this humorous slant to this call to carry on whatever, the World Health Organization has named stress the ‘health epidemic of the 21st century’ and employers and policy makers are increasingly taking the stress, anxiety and depression affecting valuable members of the workforce much more seriously.
Every year an estimated 17 million work days are lost to stress, anxiety and depression, according to the Mental Health Foundation. Employers are increasingly recognising the damage that stress can do in the workplace, including:
- lost productivity due to staff absence;
- increased workloads for workers who have to cover their colleagues’ work;
- higher staff turnover.
Many employers are concerned with easing stress in the workplace using a number of methods such as reviewing workloads, offering flexible working or addressing a workplace culture that may encourage long hours without breaks. Another way of supporting workers is to implement measures to help them boost their resilience to stress.
What is resilience?
Resilience is the ability of a person to:
- adjust to adversity;
- maintain their equilibrium;
- hold on to some sense of control over their environment;
- move forward in a positive manner.
Some people cope with stressful situations better than others, mainly due to being more resilient. These people thrive whilst others around them crumble under the pressure. But the good news is that resilience is not a fixed entity and isn’t something that a person is blessed with, or not. It can be taught and the workplace is an ideal place for people to learn to build their resilience.
What threatens resilience and mental health in the workplace?
Modern workplaces can present many challenges including some negative situations:
- Excessive workload.
- Lack of autonomy.
- Organisational restructuring.
- Lack of managerial support or teamwork.
Workplaces are changing rapidly due to globalisation, and these changes can also bring stress:
- International customers and partner organisations in different time zones – an end to fixed working hours and down time.
- The decline of the ‘job for life’ – people are becoming more selective about the jobs and the environments they work in.
- New technologies that demand constantly updated skills and expertise.
How employers can help boost resilience
There are a number of things employers can do to help build resilience amongst staff.
Encourage physical wellbeing. Physical health is fundamental to our mental health, and creating a pleasant working environment and promoting healthy behaviour can bring many benefits. Some ideas:
- Eating healthily – providing fruit for snacking.
- Exercise – bike to work schemes.
- Quit smoking – offer counselling support.
- Sensible drinking – change the drinking culture.
Promote a healthy psychological environment. Make the workplace a pleasant and happy environment:
- Promote an open and trusting management style and atmosphere.
- Train managers to consider the mental wellbeing of staff.
- Provide job security and try to avoid regular large-scale restructuring or change.
- Make jobs varied, interesting and manage workloads.
- Train staff in new skills.
- Offer coaching in dealing with stress.
- Allow autonomy and let individuals do their jobs.
- Offer fair treatment.
- Reward good work.
- Offer flexible working arrangements.
Provide specialist support to help maintain good physical and mental health. Sometimes people require specialist support with physical or mental health issues and may need to be referred on for more support, for example from:
- occupational health;
- human resources;
Promote open communication and strong social networks. People thrive on friendships and good social interaction, and people who have positive relationships in the workplace are more likely to enjoy coming to work and be productive when they get there. The following can be helpful:
- Encouraging teamwork.
- Sympathetic managers.
- Team days and work social events.
How employees can help themselves
Employees can also help themselves to be more resilient at work. Many experts now see common traits among those who display most resilience, including a strong sense of purpose in what they do and a positive but realistic outlook.
Other ways to build resilience include:
- Building and maintaining good friendships and family relationships – social interaction and support is vital to good mental health.
- Being positive – seeing problems as a potential learning process rather than another hill to climb.
- Keeping perspective –not turning a drama into a crisis. How people react to situations will determine how well they cope emotionally.
- Nurturing a positive self-perception – emphasising to ourselves the things we do well and being kind to ourselves.
- Taking time to recharge – taking regular breaks, leaving work on time and taking holiday.
- Practising mindfulness and meditation as a tool for confronting and managing stress
Support from Fit for Work
Support and guidance about work and health can be sought from Fit for Work, which offers free, online work-related health advice and guidance to anyone looking for advice and support about an existing case of sickness absence, or about issues that may result in sickness absence. Employed people who have been off work due to illness for four weeks or more can be referred for a telephone assessment with a Fit for Work case manager in order to identify all the obstacles preventing the person from returning to work. The Fit for Work case manager can also provide recommendations about how the obstacles can be addressed and to potentially enable an early return to work. Visit the Fit for Work website or call the free telephone advice line on 0800 032 6235 (English) or 0800 032 6233 (Welsh). There is a separate service running in Scotland (0800 019 2211).