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In Mental Health Week, we were yet again lamenting the levels of stress, rampant in the UK. The loss to individuals of quality of life, to businesses of skilled talent, through poor functioning presenteeism, or sickness absence and to our economy as a whole, is shocking but we have heard it all before. . . every year. And one intervention after another, a plethora of reports and a myriad of committees and interventions fail to really scratch the surface.

As a clinical psychologist, I left the NHS because of stress. Not my own, mind you. There was no budget for the much talked about prevention. One last straw was when a different part of the NHS asked me to work on stress with their staff, and my own health board said, ‘what’s that got to do with work?’. So, I left a nice secure NHS job to go into business, because I, perhaps naively, believed that one way to prevent stress was good leadership at work. I still believe that, but we still don’t have many leaders who truly ‘get it’.

Most senior people have achieved an intellectual understanding, learned some new vocabulary, understood the risk of litigation, said the right things but they have not actually changed their deep -seated beliefs. Especially in male designed and dominated organisations, what is actually running through their minds is, ‘if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen’. Men are still being raised to appear emotionally stoical, which engenders them illiterate when it comes to reading feelings in others – including stress. When the majority of senior appointees are either men, or women who have to work twice as hard to prove themselves, the culture becomes one where excessive pressure is the norm and stress a likely outcome. Which is a really wasteful way to use an expensive resource like talent, let alone pretty inhumane.

Stressful organisations assume there is only one way of doing business, long hours, presenteeism, intense working, constant travel with no time to develop the hinterland that would provide resilience to face challenge successfully. All because of beliefs that this is the only and most effective way to work, despite vast amounts of data showing it isn’t.

The good leader knows that to get the best out of your employees you need to start by understanding people, what makes them tick and how to get the best out of them. Above all sophisticated leaders are psychologically astute and recognise difference – of personality, background, values, ages and anxiety levels – and they always play to people’s strengths and different drivers.

When work is the place you go to because you know they value your diverse talent and potential, they tell you how well you are doing, they give you the opportunity to achieve the success you seek, then it not only becomes a haven for well-being but the business becomes more commercially successful.

Mind you, even if you have wonderful leadership, inclusive employers who cherish you, you still have to take some responsibility for our own health and well-being by building your own resilience so you can face challenges and bounce back faster from adversity.

Alarmingly, if you look online for a visual representation of resilience, the images are always of a tiny plant breaking through concrete. Building resilience so people can cope with a destructive and arid environment where people heap more and more pressure on you is insane.

Knowing yourself, recognising when interesting pressure tips into unpleasant stress, correcting the maladaptive habits you have developed over time, building a resilience model of the people and activities that keep you strong – that’s your responsibility and you cannot start working on this too soon. It’s best not to wait till you are already highly stressed to put these changes into practice as by then your judgment is shot. Get ahead of it now and frankly get the help of an expert because this is too important to get wrong.

There are a lot of good tips in Positive Psychology for Dummies for enhancing well-being.

Here’s what I had to say on BBC radio the other day about stress.


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