Workplace stress – and mental health in general – is high up the HR agenda. However, as with all people matters, there can be unforeseen side effects of what are intended to be positive changes. We asked our Chairman, Ian Gooden, for his views.

Thank goodness we can talk about mental health.

Before exploring this topic in more detail I want to make one thing clear: I believe that breaking down the taboo about discussing mental health issues is one of the biggest steps forward we’ve made as a society.

As a company, Chiumento has recognised the changed agenda – we have two employees who are qualified as Mental Health First Aiders and another about to complete the course. That’s a big commitment for a business of our size.

Wind back to the early 1980’s…

In one of my first HR jobs a key element of the role was investigating long-term or repeated ill health absences. There was a real sense that people were abusing the system – with “bad back” one of the most commonly quoted reasons for taking time off work. Investigations uncovering time and again that people were out playing sport, “moonlighting” doing labour intensive jobs and even (in one memorable case) climbing mountains while supposedly suffering from back pain so bad they couldn’t attend work.

It reached a point where the term “bad back” became synonymous with faking illness to avoid work.

As someone who has had major spinal surgery I know full well how debilitating a back injury can be. Making even simple daily tasks a major challenge. At one point I could only walk a few hundred metres before my legs would give way… So “bad backs” can be real!

Fast forward to the 2020’s…

With the new openness about mental health issues many HR professionals are now seeing increased cases of reported workplace stress. Is it all genuine?

The World Health Organisation define stress as “…a state of worry or mental tension caused by a difficult situation…” The challenge of course is that you can’t observe stress directly. You can see changes in behaviour that might indicate stress but undoubtedly a lot still goes unnoticed. There are no doubt people out there who are genuinely stressed, potentially at risk and “muddling through”.

Equally could it be that one person’s definition of  “stress” is just being busier than they’d like to be? Or being set objectives they find more demanding than they’d like? A function of preference rather than actual stress?

Could it also be that others are claiming workplace stress to avoid other issues? From simply wanting more time off to avoiding a daily commute they don’t enjoy? Is it a case that “stress” is the new “bad back”? Easy to claim, hard to disprove.

How well-equipped are HR professionals to identify genuine workplace stress?

Based on some recent discussions it seems to be a recurring theme. So we’ve decided to start an on-line poll to find out. You can find it on our LinkedIn.

Please take part and we will publish the results in a future article. Equally if you’d like to talk to one of our Mental Health First Aiders about how they apply their skills in our outplacement work do contact us.