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How to resist the 'resilience' narrative – and organise for less stressful work

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If you have an interest in mental health and the workplace, chances are you’ll have heard the word ‘resilience’ thrown around.

Resilience, we are told, allows us to harden ourselves to stress and anxiety.

You may be familiar with employer-sponsored stress-busting initiatives like mindfulness, exercise or even pet therapy.

While none of these activities is a problem per se, the overall approach is. Let me explain why.

These strategies are usually an example of organisations failing to tackle the problem of stress at its root cause.

They ignore that stress is often a result of work itself, requiring a change to work structures, rather than a shift in the behaviours and attitudes of individuals.

Stress does not tend to occur randomly but is triggered. TUC research indicates that the biggest causes of stress at work are:

  • Workload (74%)
  • Cuts in staff (53%)
  • Change at work (44%)
  • Long hours (39%)

The problem is widespread.

More than 2 million people have a work-related mental health problem and 70% of union reps report stress as a top safety concern at work.

Statistics from the Health and Safety Executive show that work-related stress, depression or anxiety accounts for 44% of work-related ill health and 54% of working days lost.

What’s more, many disabled workers have long-term mental health problems which are not work-related but can be exacerbated by working conditions.

These overwhelming figures point to structural issues in the way we work – not just problems with workers and their lack of ‘resilience.

Training workers how to deal with stress is not the answer.

Too often, people see their workloads rise but not their pay; and the increasing rate of zero-hours contracts leaves many worried about where their next paycheck will come from.

By focussing on us toughening up, these campaigns deflect attention from the real causes of stress.

The truth is, bosses want us to shoulder the responsibility for protecting our mental health so that they don’t have to.

It is not just trade unionists concerned by the narrative, but professionals in the field, too.

Nick Pahl, CEO of the Society of Occupational Medicine says “It is not acceptable for staff to be required to be more “resilient” - services such as occupational health need to be put in place who, with trade union representatives, can contribute to coordinated workplace health and wellbeing programmes.”

Trade unions are the best route to change

We need employers to invest in policies that monitor and enforce measures to tackle chronic work-related stress, as well as support those experiencing it.

Mental health and wellbeing is a collective concern – and just like pay and pensions, they are concerns we can organise around.

Firstly, employers have a legal duty to remove or reduce stress levels and carry out risk assessments, and so trade unionists have leverage in demanding change.

The TUC also wants to see mental health assessed in every risk assessment: because every place of work and every worker could be exposed to dangerous levels of stress.

Stress risk assessments – which could look at factors such as workload, targets and hours - are something trade unions can request and campaign for at a workplace level.

In addition, employers can be encouraged to implement the HSE’s stress management standards, which has proved to reduce stress levels in workplaces.

Union reps can make use of the TUC and HSE’s joint guide to managing stress, as well as numerous resources from Hazards magazine.

Finally, the TUC Education team will also be launching a brand new organising course for union reps, focussed on mental health organising in the workplace, launching in early 2021, so keep a look out.

If we want to combat harmful work-related stress, we need to start by changing work, not ourselves.

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