By Lydia Hartland-Rowe, Clinical Lead at Add | Wellbeing

In getting ready to write this blog for International Stress Awareness week, I found myself thinking about the Millennium Bridge that crosses the Thames between the City of London and Southwark – otherwise known as the Wobbly Bridge. I thought about the extraordinary fact that in spite of all the expertise, knowledge, care and attention that went into the designing and building of the bridge, it was only when a group of people crossing it for the first time fell unexpectedly into step that its stresses began to emerge, and it began to sway and wobble. So an unanticipated group phenomenon both caused, and exposed a significant weakness that could then be addressed and made safe. Talk about stress awareness just in the nick of time!

So how can we start to notice when we are walking into potential danger caused by stress in the workplace? In other words, how do we keep an eye and ear open for the kinds of group experiences that could generate a level of stress that makes the workplace unsafe? As individuals, most of us have some awareness of what our own personal stressors are – but just to make it complicated, what is a stressor for one person won’t be for someone else, or might even be the kind of stress that is enlivening. The stress of competing in a game of squash, or going for a run, or cooking a complicated recipe you’ve never tried before, for example. Looking at the workplace, working to a deadline on a project you’re passionate about or tackling a logistical problem that challenges, or caring for someone in pain – these situations might be a source of creative stress for some, and might be the last straw in a burden of stress, for others.

But at a group level, like with the Wobbly Bridge, unexpected things can happen to create or expose stress. The bridge wasn’t designed for people to march in unison – it was no doubt intended to be a place where people would walk, as we usually do, at their own pace. But somehow, the pressure of the group brought everyone into an unnatural, fixed ‘march’ that posed a potential danger to the structure of the bridge itself. Group dynamics at work can also cause us to behave in ways that we wouldn’t necessarily in other groups or as an individual. How often have any of us come out of a meeting and wondered ‘what got into me?’, particularly when the group has been trying to work with a difficult challenge, or where there have been issues that are hard to voice, like experiences of prejudice, or anxieties about the survival of the organisation, or just worries about our own competence.

Workplace groups and teams can certainly contribute to stress – but when it’s possible to find ways to be open and listen to each other, they can also share the weight and lessen the strain on the structure. Even just learning about each other’s individual and different sources of stress can help to reduce the hidden pressures that come when tensions are not aired. Even though it might be disappointing or even alarming when they appear (like the dangerous wobble of the bridge), it’s also possible to see the emergence of weaknesses as an opportunity to  repair and improve rather than letting things reach the point of major damage, or even collapse.

The Health and Safety Executive Management Standards offer a helpful broad framework for preparing a workplace that promotes wellbeing  and reduces stress (Demand, Control, Support, Relationship, Role and  Change) – but how can we be alert to the unexpected? How do we get ready to notice things that could have a significant impact on how an organisation functions in relation to workforce stress – but don’t feature in the architect’s drawing or the risk assessment outline?

Here are a few things to get curious about – one step further than aware!

  1. Get curious about an individual’s stress when you hear about it – the more you can learn about each other’s stress points and how different they can be, the more balance you can sustain as a team or organisation
  2. Get curious about what individual stress might be saying about the whole system – even a single voice is significant in telling you what is present in the organisation and might need attending to
  3. Get really curious when you are hearing the same stress story from different parts of the system – are you getting dangerously close to generating a wobble that can’t be recovered from organisationally?
  4. Get curious about which stresses are an intrinsic part of the organisational task, and curious about how to support people with that (the stress of competition in a crowded market, or the stress of looking after vulnerable people)
  5. Get curious about the quality of relationships in your workplace – where do they appear to reduce stress, where do they create or heighten it?

Finally, be aware that for many of us, it feels more possible to say ‘I am stressed’ than to say ‘I am depressed’, or ‘I am anxious’ or any one of the other ways that we feel when our mental health is suffering. So the more that we can show each other in the workplace that we are also open to hearing about psychological struggles beyond just ‘stress’, the more solid our organisational structures can be for everybody.