A fresh approach to manage work-related stress

When we think about work-related stress, many times our focus gravitates towards heavy workloads as a significant culprit.

Typically, when discussing workload, the first response is to tackle the effects on individuals or expect already overwhelmed individuals to manage workload stress on their own.

Common mental health articles often echo advice like promoting good time management, ensuring work-life balance, and maintaining to-do lists. While these recommendations are valuable, they might not provide significant help to those already proficient in these practices. In fact, most people understand the importance of their family over work, utilise lists in some form and prioritise their tasks. So, the question is, what more can be done?

Observe a recurring pattern in how people approach issues related to physical safety. While aiming to improve workplace physical safety, the initial focus often centres around Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) or safety rules. However, in this field, experienced safety professionals adhere to the hierarchy of control. This framework highlights that the most effective measures to mitigate injury start with eliminating the issue then substituting it, and where that is not possible provide engineering solutions and so on, all of which are reviewed first before considering less effective methods such as providing PPE. But why are these measures less effective in controlling the hazard? It is because compliance with PPE and rules ultimately falls upon the individual.

With this hierarchy in mind, why is the common initial approach to mental safety to place the burden on employees to become more resilient or to manage their workloads? Considering the hierarchy of control in stress management can help businesses to eliminate, substitute, or even engineer solutions to reduce the impacts of factors causing stress.

To illustrate, many people understand that manual handling can cause serious injury. If a business was moving 100 boxes daily from one town to another and lacked the option of a van for transportation or even a trolley for moving them, should they accept this and ask staff to go to the gym to build strength for the task? Of course not.

Understanding stress or mental load in the same way as we understand physical loads, like manual handling, goes a long way to helping us take actions that significantly reduce stress before it impacts individuals and their health.

In short, re-thinking the approach to workload problems with a different mindset can help in identifying better tools to resolve them. But like any safety issue, understanding the problem in detail and then addressing its root causes significantly contribute towards identifying solutions that can make a real difference. This not only encourages employees to work better and happier but also aids in retaining the talent that businesses tirelessly seek.