I recently attended a workshop on tackling stress in the workplace. Half way through, the trainer asked everyone to stand up and close our eyes. “I want you to imagine you’re a mighty oak tree. Hold your arms in the air as if they are branches and slowly sway them from side to side. Can you feel the wind rustling the leaves?”
After a couple of minutes of listening to a CD playing birdsong, the punchline of the session was that whenever we felt stressed at work, we should take some time out and practice this relaxation technique. Unfortunately, this wasn’t a quirky one off, only worth mentioning when cracking a joke, it’s part of a developing pattern.
For the past few years there has been a growing trend amongst health and safety professionals to promote ‘well-being’. This movement claims to improve workers’ health by encouraging a series of lifestyle changes, often with the explicit support of employers who provide financial incentives. Well-being and mindfulness have almost become a crusade with advocates zealously claiming that illnesses such as cancers and especially mental health conditions, can be significantly reduced by workers making a few relatively minor alterations to how they live their lives.
Just to be clear, every union I know is in favour of more fruit in the staff canteen, keep fit sessions at lunchtime or programmes that encourage quitting smoking or cycling to work. However, to claim that these well-being programmes can eradicate the death toll caused by occupational diseases or are the silver bullet that will defeat the huge increase in stress and associated mental health conditions in the workplace is a dangerous fantasy.
Workers develop occupational diseases because of the work they carry out. Musculoskeletal disorders and cancers do not occur in a random distribution across the entire population, they tend to appear in clusters. And in the vast majority of cases they are based upon what individuals have been exposed to either in their working lives or local communities.
Those who are forced to work in dusty environments have a greater incidence of respiratory problems; the same is true for working class children who live close to busy pollution filled roads. Workers who carry out heavy lifting or bend over all day as part of their job are much more likely to have a bad back. Ask any teacher how a proposed OFSTED inspection affects the mental health of the staff in a school.
The way to reduce long term ill-health in the workplace is by correctly identifying the hazards that are causing the problems and then systematically tackling them at source. That is the essence of the risk assessment process.
Unfortunately, rather than tackling the underlying causes of ill-health, the current fad for well-being leaves all the workplace hazards exactly as they are. On their own, however well meaning, these programmes appear to shift the responsibility for a worker’s ill-health from the employer to the worker. In many cases these initiatives are part of a concerted campaign by employers to blame the workers rather than spend money by tackling the health and safety issues at source.
If austerity means that staffing levels have been cut and workload has increased, that has an entirely predictable negative effect upon workers’ health. By all means promote healthy eating - but if the supervisor is constantly chasing you to get something finished by a completely unachievable deadline, thinking you’re an oak tree isn’t going to make an acorn’s worth of difference.