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Mental Health at Work - How Collaboration Can Improve Employee Wellbeing

13 May 2024

by John Sidebotham BEM Programme Manager, Network Rail

With April having been stress awareness month, and Mental Health awareness week occurring in May, it's timely to consider the causes of our stress epidemic, and potential antidotes.

In the UK over 15 million working days are lost due to stress. 39% comfort eat due to stress. Long term chronic stress can make us four times more likely to suffer a stroke. It increases our risk of heart disease by 36%.

We have thrived as a species not so much from survival of the fittest, but more through survival of those who can collaborate. When we care and support each other and are more empathetic, this ignites our ancient biology, by releasing oxytocin, which lowers blood pressure and increase our ability to trust. It also strengthens vagal tone (known as polyvagal theory), the vagal nerve connecting all our major organs. And it helps stop telomeres unravelling, the end points of DNA.

Some level of stress is of course can be a good thing. Our stress response alerts us to take evasive action - to fight or flee! Serving our ancestors well to have swift reactions to threats. Today, this can help by getting us into a flow state;, whether to master new skills, meet a deadline, or prepare for that important meeting – galvanising action. However, sometimes our bodies may go into flight or fight mode inappropriately, and we end up in a heightened state of alert.

The Health & Safety Executive have identified six 'management standards' that can influence stress at work.

Making small adjustments to these can all support us in being more productive, more engaged, happier and healthier!

Get it wrong, and the statistics speak for themselves.

What are these management standards?

  • Demands. Issues such as workload, work patterns and the work environment.
  • Control. How much say we have over the way we work.
  • Support. Encouragement, sponsorship and resources provided by the organisation, line management and colleagues.
  • Relationships. Promoting positive working, including collaborative ways of working to avoid conflict, and dealing with unacceptable behaviour.
  • Role. Understanding on how our roles fit within the organisation and having the necessary skills to carry out what is expected of us.
  • Change. How organisational change is managed and communicated.

The four bands of stress

We can think of stress in four broad bands:

  • Not enough stress, where you are underloaded.
  • Then we have optimum stress. This is where you feel you are in THAT ZONE. You've GOT IT! You're stretched, but not overstretched. You're increasing self-esteem, successfully rising to challenges and feel confident to explore and pursue difficult options.
  • Tolerable stress is the next band. Here, what's going on is greater than we can cope with alone. But it can be overcome with support from systems, including family, friends and colleagues. You can manage this for a period, but over a longer time frame, if you are not doing things to look after you, it can impact your mood, your capability and your health and wellbeing.
  • Then we have toxic stress. This is the response to events outside of our control. It could be working in an environment where you are expected to deliver things not aligned to your intrinsic values, not being true to yourself. It might be the consequence of significant life events. It may be the consequence to a never-ending long hours culture, where colleagues are increasingly harsh with each other, and there is fear about being open. Toxic stress can cause long term damage to the heart, and even decrease connectivity between neurons in the brain and decrease resilience.

How can working collaboratively help?

An antidote to stress is working collaboratively, in an environment where you feel psychologically safe. Where difference is celebrated. Where people genuinely care for each other. Not only does this create an environment where we can be as well as possible and flourish, it helps drive safety, performance and innovation - vital in any business and certainly in any safety critical business.

A study by Deloitte suggests that for employees who collaborate, 73% do better work, and 60% are more innovative [1]. This is attributed to the power of collaboration to lower stress and increase feelings of positivity to the task in hand.

Similarly in work by Gallup, this suggests that collaboration enables successful pooling of complementary strengths, creating more positive business outcomes [2]. So, when collaboration is present, employees' strengths are maximised, and diversity celebrated, enabling organisations to reach new success.

For me, effective collaboration helps us feel like we belong and have value, working towards shared goals. It builds community, camaraderie, and success.

Something else that is really important is providing the environment for revealing vulnerability. When you reveal some vulnerability in yourself, it gives permission for others to share their vulnerability, helping create psychological safe work environment where we genuinely care and support each other. And then we can have powerful conversations to find solutions when things aren't going right. As Brene Brown has said: "When you shut down vulnerability you shut down opportunity."

What is the work culture you are developing? Do you know how to spot the signs of stress in yourself and others?

Signs you are moving to the wrong side of the stress curve, are feelings that you are not coping, that you will never get THIS done, that you simply do not have ENOUGH TIME. You might be more irritable and bad tempered. You might feel HOPELESS. You might feel overly ANXIOUS. Your heart might start racing more than normal. You might be breathing shallowly. You might feel tension in your shoulders and neck. And you find yourself more forgetful and more restless, struggling to concentrate. We've all been there haven't we, reading and re-reading that email but nothing is going in?!

If you find yourself in this frantic state, it doesn't have to be this way. You can find peace, stillness and joy. You can claim your life back! Small incremental changes around your self-care will help such as working to be more connected with others – making every moment matter. Keeping curious – learning new things. Moving more and making that fun. Being in the moment, taking notice. And giving – being kind to others and to you. Each of these can help you see more clearly, and gradually you will start to find joy, peace and calm. But have a workplace culture where you genuinely care for each other where we celebrate different and uniqueness, where we have empathy and rumble with vulnerability, creates a space for effective collaboration, so important to drive success.

John Sidebotham

John is a dedicated expert in health and wellbeing and is committed to not only helping his colleagues at Network Rail but others who might benefit from his insights and expertise. His passion and commitment to the wellbeing of his colleagues is driven by his own experience with depression and anxiety. His work has provided and continues to provide a safety net and pastoral support wherever he is given a platform. In 2021, John was recognised in the late Queen's Birthday Honours and awarded the British Empire Medal, for outstanding service to health and wellbeing at Network Rail during the Covid-19 pandemic, and starting a movement that embodies trust, collaboration, diversity and inclusion, and the celebration of uniqueness.

Every month John provides a Teams session for any members of the Institute who may wish to hear about matters across a broad range of health, wellbeing, equality, inclusion and diversity topics, either for their own personal benefit or to support and develop their personal and professional interactions with colleagues.

Please contact our Membership Services Director Adrian Miller if you wish to be added to John's regular session invites and receive his post event material.

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