Stress is part of life. It is something we all experience from time to time. Sometimes it reflects our own busy lifestyles or key moments such as exams, moving house, organising an event, or coping with a bereavement. Often it is associated with work: meeting a deadline, dealing with difficult people, or meeting stretching targets. We all have our own ways of contending with it, some of us better than others.
There are moments, though, when stress becomes more than a pang of anxiety or a sleepless night, and becomes detrimental to our mental and physical health. There is no single medical definition of stress, but it might involve a sustained period of worry, sleeplessness, headaches, and a constant feeling of dread. This kind of stress in the workplace can be a waking nightmare; it can make coming to work a misery. It is not just harmful for individuals; it also has an economic impact. Over 11million days are lost at work very year because of stress, according to the Health & Safety Executive (HSE).
This year’s Mental Health Awareness Week (14-20 May) is focusing on stress in the workplace, and what workers and employers can do to reduce it. We should aim for every workplace to be a place which encourages good mental health. Members of the workforce must feel valued. Workers’ rights must be respected. There must be an environment which encourages workers to speak up and be heard. There must be zero-tolerance of bullying, discrimination or intimidation. Wherever possible, workers should be given proper contracts with secure hours and patterns of work. Zero-hours work can add to workplace stress.
As I have seen countless times, the role of trade unions is essential here. For example, last year Community union prioritised mental health as one of its campaigns until 2019. When I met with Community workplace reps recently I was really impressed by their determination to push good mental health to the top of the agenda.
A good starting point is getting people to talk about their own mental health. For decades, mental health has been a taboo subject. People feared ridicule or censure if they spoke about their problems. Slowly, the taboo has been broken, as prominent figures have stepped from the shadows to talk about their own experiences. We should be grateful that these celebrities, politicians and public figures have made it easier for everyone to be more open. Within the workplace, there is a similar role for managers and senior figures. If senior members of an organisation are willing to talk about their own experiences with their mental health, it sends a powerful signal to everyone.
The charity Mind has a range of tools to tackle stress in the workplace. These include creating a Stress Awareness Space where people can feel safe talking about stress, running training courses, encouraging exercise, and organising mindfulness sessions. I have visited the Barclays call-centre in my Wavertree constituency where employees are encouraged to take part in mindfulness activities. The workers there told me they found the sessions useful in tackling stress.
I have been arguing for years that our mental health services are in crisis. We desperately need more funding for acute services. But for our mental health services to be sustainable for decades ahead, we need to tackle mental ill-health when it first starts to be felt. Stress in the workplace is often an early sign of deteriorating mental health. If we can tackle it before it becomes more serious, not only will it be better for individuals affected, but also for the NHS as a whole. This Mental Health Awareness Week, I hope every employer will take part, and start to beat workplace stress.
Luciana Berger is the Labour MP for Liverpool Wavertree and President of the Labour Campaign for Mental Health