Stress…what is it good for?

During a recent union meeting at work, the third item on the agenda was Health and Safety. Not many people know that the 1974 Health and Safety at Work Act (HASAWA) is actually the Health and Safety and Welfare at Work Act. As a Workplace Representative, I’d put it on the agenda to highlight the work of the Health and Safety Committee. Two years earlier, Unite the union had carried out its own survey of members. Not surprisingly, it had picked out stress as a growing factor in the workplace.

I recalled from the discussions at that time hearing of two managers who were reluctant to take their full leave entitlement, so fearful were they of the volume of emails and work, waiting for them on their return. OK, maybe this is apochryphal but no-one in the room doubted it and there was nodding  around the room from members.

A colleague responded that all of us can operate at high levels of stress as long as the peaks arerelatively short. Problems arise when that peak starts to become the norm. I recalled listening to a report on the radio of a dispute where staff were working to contract as a form of industial action.

I recounted how a member of the senior management team had said in the same room several years earlier that stress was a good thing; good for team-building, I think he said, wasn’t it?. The faces of four colleagues, affected, two seriously, by stress-related illness in the last few years crossed my mind. Stress has now taken over from back problems as the number one reason given for time off from work for ill health.

The trouble is, offered another colleague, there was a time when there was a lull. You could catch up in the lull. But there just doesn’t seem to be a lull anymore. Ah, I said, don’t forget, we have TOIL (Time off in Lieu) and holiday entitlement. Our employer won’t have any sympathy for staff who complain about workload issues but who don’t take TOIL or use their full annual leave.

TOIL is difficult though. If you take it, you never catch up and there’s always loads more to do when you’re back in, someone said. True, we all thought in the pause that followed. Then, I reminded everyone that we all have a duty of care for ourselves and for each other. If you feel you are struggling a little, tell someone. If not your line manager, then your union rep or a colleague. Make sure someone has a written note of how you’re feeling and why. If and when everything goes pear shaped, at least you will be able to point to something which, arguably, could have been picked up by a line manager. Otherwise, your employer can reasonably argue it didn’t know there was a problem, so  couldn’t do anything about it. Not confiding in someone may even lead to you facing the possibility of capability proceedingsfurther down the line!

The meeting drew to a close at lunchtime on a Friday and I was practising what I was preaching. I’d booked the afternoon off in return for delivering training one evening the week before. Was I worried about the shed load of emails awaiting me on Monday? Not really. Did I have concerns about my workload for the coming week? Well, yes, generally, yes but nothing that wasn’t manageable at this time. As I travelled back to Liverpool on the train, I realised that taking the time off was giving me time to think. Yes, I would have more to do the following week but I also had a clearer appreciation of what I needed to do. True, I had lost a morning holding the meeting and I’d also taken time to prepare for the meeting. How stressed was I? Not as much as some of my colleagues, it appeared.

I was certainly feeling the benefit of taking TOIL in terms of my work planning and completion of tasks. It had also been a positive experience to be part of a group, sharing how we all felt about important issues at work. I enjoy delivering training to tutors and it’s beneficial not only for me but also for the organisation to be able to claim the time back. It is important to have balance in your life too. It’s not all work.

I realised, riding back on the train now in my own time, I was still thinking about work – and enjoying it. Most importantly, I felt better able to assess my own workload and identity my priorities. To my pleasant surprise, I realised that most of my current workload was either completed or inhand. I felt in control of the situation and it felt good. As the train rolled along the tracks, I was looking forward to an afternoon’s reading and playing bass guitar and getting back into work on Monday. Somehow, the stress of a difficult situation had reduced.

A week later, I turned to my colleague and said, The next time I say I’m on top of things, you have my permission to shoot me!’ Apart from saying that she didn’t need my permission, her reply was surprising.’That’ll teach you to be proud.’ After a few days of trying to deal with a sudden surge of problems to do with accreditation and an impossible deadline, I felt caught up in and tossed over by the waves crashing over my head onto the foreshore. Suddenly, no control, facing working all weekend  or lose millions. The strain between colleagues showed as the extent of the problem hit us .I think, at that moment, stress levels were soaring.

And yet, when we assessed the full scale of the problem, identified the solutions and divided the work among colleagues, some of whom volunteered, we came through and tackled this mountain of a problem in a few hours. Maybe, that senior manager was right about stress building teams?

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Seedbed – Reading Skills

This session did not start well. People were arriving late after 5pm. How can you blame them, travelling after a full day’s work. The vegetarian and vegan butties ordered didn’t arrive. One of the group quickly nipped out to the shop for a sandwich. Back in five minutes, she said. Ok, then, said I, groaning inside. The topic we were discussing that evening was reading skills. We noted the importance of understanding the purpose of different texts and their format. We did exercises on skimming and scanning. I felt tired as I think we all were and for the first hour, it felt flat and not going anywhere. then, slowy, something happened which I have experienced before in adult education but all too briefly, the mood lifted and the session gained a new impetus and dynamic.

One of my colleagues with shoulder length dark, curly  hair and thick calves dashed out for fresh supplies. We spoke of reading and related it to our own direct experience. Some of us went further and linked it to helping our own families with their studies. Suddenly, the discussion became real and personal, utterly relevant. A moment before when vague and general concepts met head to head with our practical experience and I understand more. It felt like I knew what I was doing.

At half-past six, the phone rang in the training room. That’s odd but I answered it. It was the sandwich bar apologising for forgetting the butties. Too late, I told him, no point in delivering them now. He promised cakes and treats for next time.

Later on, another member of the group spoke of preferring to work alone on a task. All this group work was fine but, actually, he didn’t feel particularly comfortable with it. Absolutely, give me something I can work on in my own time and pace without anyone else telling me what to do. It is good to acknowledge that some of us do like to work on our own. Other people’s views do ‘get in the way’ sometimes. Yet, I also argued with my face pointing both ways that it can be more rewarding and satisfying when you work something out together as a group. Tutors need to create space for both individual reflection and group companionship.

This is my fourth time delivering the Seedbed training for tutors interested in literacy, numeracy and language. I noticed soemthing else happening to me during that session. I am becoming so much more aware of the materials that I am starting to feel able to read the minds of the people who put the training modules together. I understand why something is there and, as a result, I can see the connections much more clearly between the separate modules and am starting to show the links more effectively to the group. I hope so, anyway.