Figures published by the Labour Force Survey show that 11.7 million working days were lost due to work-related stress, anxiety or depression between 2015 and 2016, accounting for 45% of all working time lost to ill-health.
The impact this has on productivity and organisational performance has made this an issue on the agenda at board meetings, and enabled HR functions to gain support for programmes aimed at promoting ‘wellbeing’.
So what is wellbeing at work, and how does it relate to stress? Finding a specific definition isn’t easy. The term encompasses so much and so many issues, from obesity to anxiety disorders, and back pain to diabetes, that it’s hard to narrow down what constitutes a lack of wellbeing, and to say just what is caused or exacerbated by stress.
The reality of stress and wellbeing at work
Let’s start with some facts. Stress is real. It isn’t an imaginary problem, but a real one with a medical basis borne out by healthcare professionals at the highest level. Stress diminishes capacity and capability, leading to poorer performance, illness and, at the worst extremes, self-harm and suicide.
People who suffer from stress are not weak. Indeed, as stress is often brought on by excessive workload and unreasonable pressure, it can be the hardest working and apparently strongest colleagues who suffer the most.
Subjective wellbeing, a person’s feelings about the quality of their life, is significantly affected by stress, which itself is the consequence of the point where perceived pressure and expectations exceed a person’s perceived ability to cope.
When people exceed their ‘coping threshold’, several things will happen in the body: chemicals will be produced and enter the system, causing an emotional reaction that will then lead to behavioural impacts.
It isn’t a choice; it’s just how the body is designed to work. When we recognise a perceived threat like this, our body takes steps to ensure that we are ready for ‘fight or flight’. This can lead to explosive reactions and rows (fight), or sudden exits followed by prolonged absence (flight).
Increase demands beyond this coping threshold and stress will occur. Each individual’s threshold is different, and their perception of the pressure they are under is wholly subjective. As a leader, you may feel that staff are overreacting and ‘making a mountain out of a molehill’. But while you do need to have a good idea of what reasonable demands look like, it isn’t up to you to decide whether they’re stressed or not.
Your approach to wellbeing at work
Managers and leaders have always been ambivalent, at best, about the idea of stress. In part, this is a Theory X and Y thing. Do you trust your people to tell you the truth or not? Do you see stress as a real thing or ‘all in the mind’?
Some organisations with more ‘macho’ cultures deny the existence of stress altogether, passing it off as laziness or malingering. Others with soft cultures tiptoe around the subject and exhibit huge amounts of empathy, providing back massages and yoga workshops, and offering counselling to anyone who says they need it.
So where do you stand on the subject, as a manager or leader?
Remember that one of the factors that probably marked you out as a potential leader was your high level of resilience and ability to cope with pressure. Not everyone is as lucky.
But stress is just one significant aspect of wellbeing. Others include healthy relationships at work, a supportive culture, a sense of community in the workplace, support for personal circumstances, enjoyable work, clarity of job role, feeling capable of meeting expectations, constant learning and improvement, and a strong sense of identification with the team, leader or organisation.
As a leader, it is up to you to protect, nurture and support your people so that they can do their best work. That isn’t just about ‘being nice’; it’s actually a hard-nosed business decision. If your people have a subjective sense of wellbeing they will be engaged. If they are engaged they will do good work and think creatively. If they do good work and think creatively the organisation will benefit and prosper.
Wellbeing is not a fad, and it’s not the sole province of HR. If you’re a manager or a leader, it’s up to you.