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 you focused and motivated.
But excessive pressure can lead to stress which undermines performance, is costly to the public sector and can make people really ill. A survey by the mental health charity Mind has reported in the MBJ that public health workers are more likely to be suffering with mental health illnesses compared with those in the private sector, whilst they are less likely to feel supported when they disclose these problems.
The need to tackle stress is recognised in law. Under the Health and Safety at Work Action 1974 and the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulation , 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.
Many employees find they are unable to cope with the pressures of work and become overwhelmed. Add to this, the pressures of commuting and modern day living, the organisation may find that it is suffering with extended absenteeism putting pressure on already overstretched resources.
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 which 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. An employee may have problems with childcare, flexible working, eldercare, role ambiguity, and 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.
That is why it is not rocket science!
Of course, it’s also important for e managers to 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 of good wellbeing habits and putting their employees under unnecessary pressure.
Managers are busy people. However, busy people are quite able to ignore their own signs of stress, become an adrenaline junkie and then find themselves on the road to burnout. It can happen to anyone at any time.
Imagine a vase that has been dropped and has been glued and put back together again. You may well be able to use it for artificial flower arrangements, but you will never be able to put water in it otherwise it will leak. It works the same for our bodies. Your body may break down and you might get back to some form of work again, but it will not be in the same capacity.
So, what are the signs of burnout?
- Feeling tired all the time
- 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
But it is important to remember that no two people are the same.
The role of line managers in employee wellbeing is so vital as they are often the first port of call when an employee has a problem. With the right skillset in place, they will have the capability and confidence to tackle those sensitive conversations with an employee, intervene when they can, and signpost to other supportive interventions that may be required.
Managing people and being perceptive about their needs is key to a healthy workplace culture. Now I know Managers may tell me that they don’t have the time to listen to their teams or don’t have the skillset to do so and let us not forget that many managers are promoted into managerial positions because of their technical skills and not because of their people management skills. Accepting the promotion is easy and the realisation that they have to manage fifty people may not actually dawn on them until they are fully ensconced in the job.
If Managers don’t have the listening skills to communicate with their teams, it’s only a matter of getting trained. It is as simple as that. Leaders who support a listening skills culture will enjoy a more productive and profitable team. That is why we offer Senior Executive Masterclasses in active listening. If leaders know how to look after their people, they will look after their team objectives which will drive the bottom line.
Managing stress takes practice and discipline. It doesn’t come naturally to everyone as there are so many different calls on your time – whether that be from home or from work. However, it is vital to make mental wellbeing an everyday habit and make sure you build personal and team resilience to manage the ‘21stcentury overwhelm culture’.
You may do little about the stress you’re having to manage at work – in some ways this could be out of your control. But what is inside your control is your resilience to manage it. Take time to learn what it will take to be more resilient, know how to switch off after work, and achieve a healthy work-life balance.
As a manager having the right attitude and 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.
Don’t forget that employees like to feel valued and appreciated. A hand-written thank you note will go a long way to increasing motivation and morale – and all for no extra money in the pay packet! It’s really that simple.
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. If you’re 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!
Given how much time we spend at work and how much mental ill-health there is, it is really important that Managers engage, involve and inspire their people – and carry them with them! They need to encourage a positive working environment where people will look forward to coming to work. A workplace where employees feel included and part of the way forward. The positive impact that this will have on employees will be enormous and the organisation will benefit from a happier, healthier, more engaged and productive team of employees.
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A Case Study
Bill James worked as an IT Specialist in a local City Council for over five years. He knew his boss was leaving and was waiting to hear who was going to take over from him. The CEO called him into her office and asked if he would like the post. More money, more recognition, more responsibility. He jumped at the chance. Three months into post, he realised that managing people was not his forte. He was a left-brain person; happy with machines but not with people. At first, he didn’t like to admit this to himself but when things started to get out of hand, he went to HR and shared his concerns. He was ‘not to worry and would learn on the job’. He never did. He stopped sleeping, was answering emails late at night, found himself irritable with his team members and lost the pleasure of going into work. He ignored all these signs until he started to get chest pains and his wife made an appointment for him to see the doctor. The doctor said that if he didn’t start to control his working life, he was on the road to burn out. The next three weeks he looked after himself, switched off from work completely, walked and ate well, and even learnt mindfulness. Bill was one of the lucky ones as he was able pull back from where he was. He went back to work and immediately went to HR where he insisted on some managerial training.
First of all, he wanted some support in leading his team and immediately put himself onto a listening skills programme for Managers. He had people to manage and had received no training to do so. He knew he had to recognise signs and symptoms of stress in his team early but did not have the skillset to do so.
His email was out of control, so he placed boundaries and limitations as to when he did and did not answer it. Before he would stop what he was doing every time an email popped up on his screen! He allowed himself to switch his phone off, so he was not available 24/7. He learnt how to close his office door at the end of an evening and switch off from work.
A year into the post, Bill now heads up a successful team in the Council. There are of course still many challenges due to job security and threats of more cuts, but he feels in control of what he is doing. He knows he is a role model to the rest of his team and every day he walks the talk and spends time communicating with his team, providing praise and recognition to his valued employees.