Speaker: Emily Pearson, Head of Workplace Wellbeing, Be.Wellbeing Ltd, Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

Date: 19 April 2018        Venue: Netherwood Hotel, Grange-over-Sands, Cumbria

Emily immediately gained members’ attention when she began her presentation with a challenging discussion question: Why should you care? Followed by a fascinating discussion examining why zebras don’t get ulcers!

She used this as a starting point to help members understand what stress is and to demonstrate how human responses to stress have evolved over thousands of years. She explained that stress responses have always been partly physiological as well as psychological/psychosocial pressures and that their origin goes back to the flight/fight defence to threat that is controlled by the amygdala in the brain’s hippocampus area.

She said that for man this response now was more commonly linked to the pressures and demands of every-day life rather than the need to escape from predators or invaders!

Emily then discussed how difficult it was to identify the boundary between ‘good pressure’ that helps individuals to perform better and unacceptable ‘stress’ – the point at which the level of pressure becomes overwhelming. Members agreed that this point will be different for everyone and will be linked to their physical health, work pressures and home circumstances.

She then summarised some of the things that might be indicators that someone was feeling stressed such as a combination of being prone to:

  • Coughs and colds (low immune system).
  • Low energy.
  • Nervousness and shaking.
  • Digestive problems.
  • Aches pains and tense muscles.
  • Feeling sweaty.
  • Chest pains and rapid heart-beat.
  • Loss of sexual desire.

Emily said that these symptoms could also be indicators of physical problems but that if a number of employees were showing similar potential stress related problems in the workplace then it was advisable for managers to assess the situation because the stress levels might be due to workplace pressures and high staff stress levels often lead to:

  • Low work satisfaction.
  • Lower work productivity.
  • Reduced motivation.
  • Reduced staff loyalty.
  • Higher staff turn-over.
  • Higher absenteeism or sick leave.
  • Presenteeism (due to fear of not being seen as a ‘good’ worker)

Emily then explained why it was important to look at ways of managing these problems in the context of the workplace. She said that even though HSE data showed that stress accounted for 37% of all work related ill health in 2015/16 and 45% of working days lost due to ill health many businesses do not include Stress Risk Assessments in their safety management systems or even realise that they have a duty to manage workplace stress under the Management of Health and Safety at work Regulations 1999.

Emily said that there is a good business case for managing workplace stress because:

  • Mental health problems cost an average of £1,300 per employee per year (Mind).
  • About one in six employees experience a mental health problem per year (Mind).
  • Mental health problems are classified as a disability (Equality Act, 2010).
  • Presenteeism does not increase work productivity.

She  recommended that employers should consider introducing workplace well-being programmes as a way of mitigating against the adverse effects of workplace stress.

Emily then considered ways that employers might establish appropriate workplace well-being management systems. She said that these could include seeking the assistance of an ‘expert’ consultant and/or the introduction of a comprehensive staff training programme for employees. For instance, the provision of accredited training for managers on managing mental health problems in the workplace and managing their own stress. It could also include training for volunteers to become Mental First Aiders (including suicide prevention) and others to become Mental Health Advocates and the provision of bespoke mental health booklets for employees.

She said that as well as benefitting employees, workplace well-being initiatives also had the following benefits for employers because they demonstrated compliance with legislative ‘duty of care’ requirements, they often led to increased productivity and they helped reduce the stigma of mental health problems. She suggested that such schemes also helped to develop a mentally resilient workplace that was able to retain valued and experienced staff.

A copy of Emily’s presentation is available here: Apr 2018 EP Business case for workplace wellbeing

Emily’s presentation generated some lively discussions and was much appreciated by members attending the meeting.