Why civil service leaders need to take workplace stress seriously

Written by Professor Zahir Irani on 9 March 2017 in Opinion

Departmental chiefs must work to create an environment that’s good for body and mind

Prime minister Theresa May’s recent announcement on mental health – a “hidden injustice” in UK society – is another signal of changing attitudes, and has highlighted the important role of employers. Reviews of practices in workplaces have been promised, with employers given training to better help them support people who need time off to recover or refresh.

There’s a wider issue here of the nature of modern work, and the impact of stress on health over time. At low levels it’s a typical, and – it could be argued – a useful part of modern working life. But employees suffering from anxiety and depression are often an indication of where the management, culture or day-to-day operations of an organisation aren’t what they should be.

And the effects aren’t only psychological. For many years, there’s been a suspected link between ongoing high levels of stress and heart-related conditions and deaths. Recent research published in The Lancet has provided tangible evidence. The study by Harvard Medical School suggests higher levels of activity in the amygdala part of the brain, processing emotions associated with stress, encourages the production of more white blood cells and inflammation of the arteries – leading to heart attacks, angina and strokes. Researchers concluded that long-term stress should be seen as being as significant a risk factor in diagnosing heart problems as smoking and high blood pressure.

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Combinations of pressures from global competition, more uncertainty, heightened career expectations and digital working practices, have led to working lives running at new and unhealthy levels of intensity. To give an example from a more extreme end of the scale, figures suggest that one-fifth of employees in Japan are at risk of death from what’s known as “karoshi” – a sudden heart attack or stroke caused by overwork – and in 2015 claims for compensation rose to their highest-ever level of 1,456 in a single year. South Korea has a similar problem, which they call “gwarosa”, and it’s reported to be affecting China, India and Taiwan too.

Dealing with a culture of stress and challenges to mental health is a question of leadership. Because the reality is that work is good for us: providing a positive routine, a daily sense of purpose and achievement and social environment. So there’s a healthy form of hardworking and an unhealthy one. Senior management in the civil service need to be thinking about how they can ensure staff are well protected and that working cultures are appropriate.

Tactics for encouraging a positive mental health culture should be based around awareness of the range of causes of stress in a department. Recent research into the state of wellbeing among UK police professionals has shown that the day-to-day threat of violence is of far less concern than problems of administration and IT.

Senior managers should be aware of the changing character of work roles. Processes should be in place to review workloads and work variety. Most importantly, employees need to feel a sense of control when it comes to their daily routines, and that support is available when this isn’t the case.

They should also be in touch personally with what’s happening in the working environment, getting a first-hand sense of the state of relationships, any potential bullying, and ensure management processes encourage participation, empowerment and the opportunity to give constructive feedback.

Managers need to work with their HR departments to actively promote mental wellbeing within the organisation. Establishing awareness and understanding is important, as is training for managers and staff on reducing stigma and discrimination. Steps should also be taken to make it easier for employees to admit to issues as early as possible.

Managers should provide opportunities for flexible working because small adjustments to work routines can be a release valve for growing pressures and a sense of a lack for control.

It’s important to be conscious of those individuals most at risk of mental health problems: Conditions like anxiety and depression are more likely among those employees with existing long-term health problems such as diabetes or health issues involving pain; people who are experiencing relationship problems or who have been through a recent bereavement; and anyone dependent on drugs or alcohol.

Fortunately, there are also some positive methods for creating a working environment that’s good for mental health, linked to good physical health. Researchers suspect that at the heart of the karoshi phenomenon is a more basic problem of spending too much time sitting at a desk, and not eating and sleeping properly. Teams would benefit from the introduction of standing desks, standing meetings, or even walking meetings.

Finally, a proactive stance on the importance of taking breaks should be part of any manager’s style; and certainly not allowing there to be an unwritten acceptance that breaks are unnecessary. This could involve a more explicit policy on break times, the provision of specific spaces to encourage breaks, and encouraging the use of lunchtimes to eat well and spend time away from the desk.


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Professor Zahir Irani
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Professor Zahir Irani is dean of the Faulty of Management and Law at the University of Bradford’s School of Management

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phil Britto (not verified)

Submitted on 9 March, 2017 - 12:58
Unfortuntely its talked about but no action is taken to aleviate stress in a culture of more for less. The Home Office doesnt care what happens to its staff. Where injury at work claims have been accepted as caused by the workplace, what happens? More stress is added with unreasonable managers who refuse to follow guidance on how to help and just bully staff into submission.

phil Britto (not verified)

Submitted on 9 March, 2017 - 12:58
Unfortuntely its talked about but no action is taken to aleviate stress in a culture of more for less. The Home Office doesnt care what happens to its staff. Where injury at work claims have been accepted as caused by the workplace, what happens? More stress is added with unreasonable managers who refuse to follow guidance on how to help and just bully staff into submission.

Anon (not verified)

Submitted on 9 March, 2017 - 13:27
Not being constantly expected to do more and more with less and less resource would be a start. The fear of consequences if you don't deliver everything that's being asked of you and the fear that you're risking making mistakes in trying to deliver everything is a huge cause of work place stress.

Anon (not verified)

Submitted on 9 March, 2017 - 14:11
Very interesting article. I hope that these changes are seen in the DWP Work Coach role where they are expected to see claimants for 10 minutes every 10 minutes throughout the whole day (with lunch and sometimes tea breaks if it works out). No time for reflection, admin, emails, open learning etc. Leaders will dispute this but this is the reality. Our poor employees are heading for burnout. Lets hope this is taken seriously and resolutions introduced 'at pace'.

Tom D (not verified)

Submitted on 9 March, 2017 - 15:14
I agree with all that is said above. However, a more balanced article would have looked at and commented on the responsibility of employees too. To alleviate stressful environments takes good engagement and that engagement has to be open, honest and most definitely two way. You article also seems to miss an important point that the leadership/management is a human community too and just as susceptible to stress as anyone else.

Anon (not verified)

Submitted on 10 March, 2017 - 17:43
Nice article but way, way from any reality of the workplace of most "front line civil servants" Basic pay has stayed where it is for the past 7 years now, take home has been cut by nearly two hundred a month in "increased pension contributions". Do we feel valued as a work force, no more robbed than valued. The work place is extremely oppressive trying to meet increased targets with less staff we have the same amount of managers, some of them being extremely poor and entirely lack man management skills. Stress is treated as weakness and the results of workplace created anxiety and depression are treated as under performance and staff are subject to disciplinary procedures and micro managed to where they either completely breakdown or quit. (making the lack of staff worse) I am looking elsewhere for a job that will pay me the rate for my job, the private sector will pay me nearly 10k a year more for less stress and hours. I loved the job I do, but not the unrealistic workload and expectations that I will do more for less year on year in increasingly oppressive working conditions amongst a thoroughly demoralised work force. Sweet words but must relate to another planet from the one I currently work on.

Anonymous (not verified)

Submitted on 15 March, 2017 - 08:11
Far too often management will react defensively to any suggestion that anyone could be suffering from stress "There's no stress on my team". Until there is an honest admission there are a number of problems causing a lot of stress (PMR comes to mind as one of the most important), things are never going to improve.

Anon (not verified)

Submitted on 20 March, 2017 - 11:49
Interesting article but far removed from reality of life in the civil service. The PM's recent speech was welcome but needs to be backed up by real action. HMRC have an appalling record of creating stress and really could not care less about what happens to staff as a result. The loyalty of staff is a one way street. The attitude of HMRC senior managers to stress and mental health would disgust any decent person. Perhaps Mrs May could address the problems within the civil service as an example to others, if we really are to tackle 'hidden injustice' in society?

Anon (not verified)

Submitted on 23 March, 2017 - 08:09
Common sense would tell us that civil service leaders (like most other employers) should take workplace stress seriously. But they do not. They will not. Depressingly it really is as simple as that.

Anon (not verified)

Submitted on 3 July, 2017 - 20:40
I would like to say I enjoy my job in the civil service but no I don't! i feel bullied on the workplace. My stats and time keeping are perfect I haven't had a day off sick in the year I have worked for DWP, I am polite and helpful and accurate. Yet I am constantly told off for silly little things that the day before I would have got told off for doing the opposite. I feel in a no win situation and quite often go to lunch in tears. We recently lost a member of staff to suicide and it's not surprising! we get pressured with stats no time off for sickness no word of thanks ever! Just constant criticism for doing the best job we can each day. And the worst bit is you can ask 10 different members of staff a question and get 10 different replies, no way of knowing you are doing it correctly until you get told off for doing it wrong. I thought I had landed my dream job - nightmare more like.

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