Steve Smith: Preventative action best way to tackle stress

2015 was a challenging year but techniques such as mindfulness can help maintain the well-being of workers, writes Steve Smith

Stress-related symptoms such as anxiety and depression have become significant issues for many employers. Picture: PA

Now that we can view it from a safe distance, it is likely that 2015 will be looked back upon as a challenging year by the average UK worker. Despite positive evidence that the economy is in recovery, for many the flavour of 2015 was one of ongoing austerity measures, cutbacks and low (if any) pay rise.

Job losses were announced at Tata Steel, HMRC and Lloyds Banking, and in the North-east over 5,500 jobs were lost in the oil and gas sector.

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Not surprisingly, stress related symptoms such as anxiety and depression have become significant issues for many employers, as organisations have come to realise that the mental health of their workforce is a major asset to be protected. We already know that stress-related illness is one of the major causes of sickness related absence in industry; work related stress accounted for almost half (43 per cent) of all days lost to the British economy in 2014-15, a total of 440,000 workers affected and a total of 9.9 million days lost.

Occupational Health services have historically responded reactively to mental health issues, referring workers to specialist therapy and counselling services. Approaches such as Solution Focused Brief Therapy (SFBT) and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) can help people bring about lasting positive change in a relatively short period of time; indeed SFBT can often help people in as few as five sessions.

CBT can achieve similar results in between five and 20 sessions. However, given the significant negative impact stress-related illness can have this reactive approach is rather like closing the door after the proverbial horse has bolted. However, it is here that the seed of a change in outlook is growing. While every employer is aware of the need to protect employees from the effects of harmful and toxic work environments, some employers are coming to see the benefits of proactively protecting their workforce from the harmful effects of workplace stress. Approaches involving Mindfulness meditation are attracting increased attention as the benefits of this skills-based technique are becoming recognised. Some of the benefits of the approach include: a reduction in workplace stress levels by as much as 36 per cent; significant improvement in cognitive skills such as working memory and visuo-spatial processing; increase in creativity and problem solving abilities; as well as a measurable increase in our ability to focus our attention and stay focused longer.

Mindfulness is essentially paying deliberate attention to the present moment in a non-judgmental fashion. In other words, not getting caught up in stories about the past or the future, and not getting caught up in judging our current experience against some imagined benchmark; it is simply being-in-this-moment.

I say ‘simply’, but like all skills it takes a bit of practice.

Many organisations are providing free mindfulness classes for their staff; Robert Gordon University (RGU) has been doing this for the past three years, and as word spreads other organisations are offering drop-in sessions and structured programmes. World-leading companies like Goldman Sachs, Google, Deutsche Bank and General Mills, as well as the United States Marine Corps, provide mindfulness training to hone the competitive edge of their employees and senior managers, while reducing the toxic impact of working in an increasingly stressful world.

Like all skills-based activities, mindfulness meditation takes a commitment to practice, but there are many apps and tools which can be used to help people in their practice.

Equally there are a number of Mindfulness Colouring Books that enable someone to deliberately focus their attention on an intricate colouring task.

It’s said that growth comes through challenge; my hope for 2016 is that we all come to realise the importance of mental health and wellbeing in enhancing our working lives and economic output and increasingly take steps together, employers and employees, to proactively build a healthier and more resilient community.

• Dr Steve Smith, Enterprise Fellow and Lecturer in Mental Health and Wellbeing at Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen