Breaking the Back of Stress

“Work-related musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) are the most commonly reported cause of occupational ill-health in Great Britain with over half a million workers suffering from a work-related MSD at any one time”

Tuc.org.uk 30.08.18

One of the best preventative measures against MSD is to go to the gym and get stronger. A good, strong back is at the core of a person’s stability. The best recommended exercises are squats and deadlifts, all performed with maximum weight in a controlled and mindful manner. The gym itself, however, carries a certain degree of risk and injuries can occur. In such cases there is no substitute for a good physio.

Is this the best way to tackle MSD’s at work? Clearly not! If we were to try and eliminate MSD’s in the workplace the first thing we’d probably want to do is to apply the hierarchy of control; the two most effective forms of control being to either eliminate or reduce stresses on the body. Only when we have performed these basic things first would we then look for other forms of control. Telling people to go to the gym as a control measure simply strengthens the target, in this case the person; which if put under repeated stress will almost certainly fail again at some point. Safety practitioners know this only too well and the principle of the hierarchy of control is a well-established approach that primarily seeks to eliminate or reduce hazards.

But what about wellbeing and stress in the workplace? Do we use the same hierarchy of control approach when thinking of people’s mental health? The impact of stress in society is a growing concern. Stress is responsible for almost 12,000,000 lost work days and is estimated to cost the economy around £7,000,000,000 – that’s seven billion pounds each year! So, you would think it would be in everyone’s interest to tackle it as effectively as possible.

A lot of measures for dealing with stress focus around principles such as mindfulness, time management or even meditation. Now there is nothing inherently wrong with this, but essentially these approaches are coping mechanisms. They are the mental equivalent of going to the gym to strengthen the person. Sending people on a mindfulness course may build up their defences, but if they are then plunged back into the same environment, that still has the same stress factors that caused the problem, how long will it be before fatigue starts to set in?

With stress, like all other hazards, we first need to seek to either eliminated or reduced it before we teach people how to cope. In workplaces, elimination and reduction are largely a management / cultural issue. Can we really expect people to be stress-free when those who the organisation (explicitly or implicitly) value and reward the most are those who come in at 7am, don’t leave until 8.30pm, answer emails on Sunday night at 11pm and travel a thousand miles a week. Can we really expect people to be stress-free if their entire day is mapped out for them and they have virtually no autonomy over any aspect of what they do? These are but some of the substructures that create a stressful working environment. If an organisation is really committed to effectively tackling stress, it must first address the systemic issues that cause it. This then benefits the entire company, not just those strong enough to ‘go to the gym’.

2macs Managing Workplace Stress Programme