Why civil service leaders need to take workplace stress seriously

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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