Stress fractures in the emperor’s clothes!

It’s the story of how a very proud emperor gets taken in by a couple of charlatans who play to his vanity and persuade him that, for a price, they can make him a robe of such magnificence that everyone will notice him. They “present” him with an invisible robe indicating that the robe actually appears invisible to fools. Neither he nor any of his cronies question the proposition as no one wants to be called a fool, so they go along with the story and admire the magnificence of the robe.

Truth is, the emperor is walking around the place in the nude but everyone is so afraid of being called a fool that they accept the status quo. That is, until a little child points and states the obvious: “The emperor isn’t wearing any clothes!”

Some managers can be too afraid sometimes to state the obvious lest we be judged as foolish. There are times when we see something akin to the emperor’s clothes and should make comment and call situations as we see them, not as we are told to see them. We must always strive to do this with courtesy, manners and the relevant facts.

One such issue that is attracting a lot of attention at present is the issue of stress in the workplace. The popular view is that stress is bad and causes workers to feel anxious, depressed and that it’s caused by modern management practice and poor managers.

This is far too simplistic. In this regard some HR professionals and union delegates haven’t really helped either. In fact, stress isn’t the cause of anything. It’s just a clumsy and simplistic label.

Most mental health professionals don’t accept stress as a descriptor that helps improve an understanding of mental wellbeing in any helpful way. It certainly doesn’t provide any meaningful insights into what may be the cause of a serious issue for an individual. For example, anxiety, depression and anti-social behaviour are specific conditions that require quite separate treatments.

Within a workplace setting these conditions may very well be triggered or exacerbated by poor working environments, poor management practices, over indulgent union interference, or an individual’s own non-work related mental health issues. However, let’s not pretend that the issue is always being managed properly just because we’ve found a label for it.

The medical profession may not mean to but in some ways encourages the use of the ambiguous term stress (which often finds its way onto Medical Certificates), and in doing so may actually be masking the real cause behind the person’s behaviour. Absenteeism explained away by a medical certificate which states “a stress related condition”, doesn’t help to improve the work environment for that member of staff or any other member of staff which may be the cause of the time off.

Similarly, stress inventories and surveys may be quite unhelpful, unless they are analysed to help identify the work related triggers. There is also a danger in relying too heavily on self-report surveys, particularly when they are only composed of closed questions. Objective information is critical in ensuring the correct, if inconvenient, work related triggers are identified.

Workers at all levels within an organisation deserve, and should expect, to have their mental wellbeing considered appropriately. It is too serious to be trivialised with the label of stress. Managers, union delegates, medical professionals and the community need to understand that this is not an issue that should be used as a political or industrial relations football to achieve a pre-ordained agenda.

For the individual suffering from anxiety, depression or exhibiting anti-social behaviour, the focus should be on what will facilitate early diagnosis and the appropriate treatment.

Within a work setting, this can be helped in a major way by providing an environment where disclosure is handled empathically, exploding the myths and stereotypes surrounding mental wellbeing, and its treatment is encouraged and where mental wellbeing stops becoming an industrial relations issue and becomes what it is – – a health issue.

Just like the child outed the subterfuge behind the emperor’s new clothes, so too should we all challenge the myth that all mental wellbeing issues can be categorised under the label of stress.

Martin Booth is general manager of BHI Digital Print Services at Box Hill Institute of TAFE, and vice-president of the Network of In-house Print Professionals Australia (NIPPA).

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