More than half of working days lost to ill-health in Britain are down to stress. That stark figure alone shows that something is going drastically wrong in our workplaces. Although progressive legislation, proactive health and safety reps and changing attitudes have brought down the rate of industrial accidents, work is still making too many people sick.
This week is Stress Awareness Week. Initiatives like this are an important opportunity to take stock of what causes stress in our lives, and what we can do to tackle it. Charities, agencies, trade unions and the healthcare sector all have their part to play in tackling the workplace stress epidemic. At City Hall for instance, the Sadiq Khan is working to ensure Londoners can access social prescribing and is encouraging employers to sign up to the Good Work Standard.
In my practice as GP, I often see people with feelings of stress and anxiety that can’t always be solved with a pill. As a society, we’re getting better at talking about mental health, but it’s rarely acknowledged that many mental health difficulties stem from the workplace. It’s deeply troubling that so many of us are driven to ill health through the simple and necessary task of earning a living. Much ink has been spilt over the angst of millennials encountering workplaces that seem to demand their social as well as professional lives. And too many Londoners still work exhausting hours in poor conditions for little pay.
Amid talk of resilience, wellbeing, mindfulness and the rest, we must not forget the real issue – namely, that the healthy workplaces our city needs are the responsibility of all employers to create. Those of us concerned with making workplaces good places to be should never fall into the trap of putting the burden on individual employees.
Nearly half of workplace stress is down to workload, according to the Health and Safety Executive. Bullying, violence and a lack of support is the cause of another quarter of cases. No amount of employee perks, deep breathing or other cosmetic benefits can resolve these matters. Free pizza is scant compensation for punishing hours and a toxic culture of presenteeism. Ball pits and fridges full of fruit aren’t necessarily unwelcome, but they’re no substitute for a fair wage, a decent pension, a safe environment and a healthy office culture.
Research has shown that real wellbeing at work is down to control, recognition and fairness. The answer to these problems is rooted in a balance of interests, with both employees and managers having a fair voice and a sense of agency. In my view, these aims are best achieved through trade unionism. Unions are the only reliable way for workers to ensure their conditions and their rights are based on something more durable than the good will of the employer.
While many employers are a model of decency, even the best will benefit from the more honest relations that are possible when a workforce can speak collectively. Research across countries and sectors shows that workplaces with unions are safer too. And though the purpose of trade unions is to further the interests of workers, they can also bring benefits for employers: healthier, safer workplaces mean fewer sick days, better employee retention and lower recruitment costs.
In London especially, where fields as varied as the creative industries, marketing and the tech sector offer ever more individual employee perks, a lesson must be drawn from the legions of people under pressure in the workplace, and those left too sick to work outside of it. While free food and yoga do no harm, there is nothing that defeats stress like knowing someone has got your back. And at work, that’s your union.
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