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       Hazards, number 161, 2023
Dave Smith’s guide to organising. No.21. Resilience is not the answer
Patching up stressed workers and sending them back or helping them become more ‘resilient’ is a bad answer to a really bad problem. Workers don’t need thicker skins, says safety organiser Dave Smith. They need to challenge the working conditions that created toxic workplaces in the first place.


Nine out of ten workers in the emergency services have experienced some form of mental ill-health during their careers, according to the Blue Light project run by Mind. The charity’s research shows that 69 per cent of front-line staff felt their mental health had deteriorated since Covid, with a quarter of those surveyed describing their current mental health as ‘poor’ or ‘very poor’.

I’ve been working with unions representing firefighters, paramedics and nurses for a number of years. Given the traumatic experiences many of them have been through while at work, it is unsurprising that post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a major issue of concern.

But PTSD is far from being the number one mental health issue raised by FBU, UNISON and GMB members.  Stress and anxiety caused by staff shortages, excessive workload or insufficient equipment to carry out their roles are much more prevalent.

POST HASTE The chief executive of Royal Mail has admitted digital tracking devices carried by postal workers were used to pressure them to work faster. more

These issues are virtually universal across education and social care, where inspections by Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission (CQC) add to the pressure. Add bullying, discrimination and stagnating pay, affecting all sectors of the economy, and that's why work-related stress, depression and anxiety is at an all-time high in Great Britain and now makes up around half of all work-related ill-health.

While some employers have started commissioning glossy literature on mental health issues, practical action in the workplace is often limited to a counselling helpline or a tiny number of mental health first-aiders (Hazards 141).

No unions are opposed to this sort of initiative, but why is it that many bosses’ strategies concentrate solely on offering support to workers who are already experiencing mental ill-health, rather than on tackling the issues in the workplace that are causing the ill-health in the first place?  Instead, employers claim that putting healthy options in the staff canteen or encouraging staff to take up cycling or give up smoking demonstrates their concern for workers’ ‘wellbeing’.

In February 2023, Safety professionals’ body IOSH warned that more employers “want to appear mindful of their workers’ wellbeing yet fail to provide them with any real benefits.”  An IOSH snap poll found workers were not impressed by online wellbeing services, employment assistance programmes that only deal with personal rather than workplace problems, freebies and discounts and mental health first aid.

Instead, workers expressed a preference for workplace stress risk assessments, menopause support, better management and flexible working. A more responsive attitude to worker surveys was also a priority.

IOSH research programme lead, Dr Karen Michell, noted “greater worker expectations of employers are leading some of them into the practice of ‘wellbeing washing’, where employers talk a good game when it comes to worker care and wellbeing but fail to go beyond offering superficially good-looking benefits that don’t actually address the fundamental elements of what makes their workers feel content.”

More disingenuous is the latest trend for ‘resilience’ (Hazards 123). Well paid management consultants argue that workers regularly exposed to traumatic events can be taught coping mechanisms which allow them to adapt to significant levels of workplace stress.

To much media fanfare, Amazon installed AmaZen wellness chambers in their distribution centres. Inside the glitzy telephone boxes, meditation software mixes hi-definition whale song with images of lapping waves on LCD screens.

CUPBOARD LOVE? Sending workers to ruminate in a box won’t solve stressful work at Amazon. The sure-fire cure is recent, safe and well-paid work and a union voice.

In an environment of unachievable deadlines and micro-management, any workers perceived to be less resilient are eased out of the workforce via capability or sickness absence policies.

The wellbeing and resilience approaches both blame worker’s mental ill-health on individual lifestyle choices around diet and exercise rather than unrealistic targets, lack of breaks or funding cuts. While presenting themselves as caring employers, some are implementing pre-entry occupational health assessments to weed out applicants with any mental health issues in their medical history.

One major public sector organisation has even suggested a pre-employment questionnaire that would include asking candidates whether their parents got divorced during their childhood. These recruitment procedures scream: “discrimination!” 
And by concentrating on the supposed failings of individual workers, the employer’s legal duty of care once again is conveniently overlooked.

PRECARIOUS WORK Insecure workers experience stress, exhaustion, anxiety, depression and other emotions such as frustration, guilt and low self-esteem, a Kings College London (KCL) evidence review has found. more

Any serious strategy to reduce mental ill-health must start by identifying anything in the working environment that has the potential to cause harm to workers. Even the HSE’s insipid Stress Management Standards highlight that employers’ attempts to drive through organisational change without proper consultation, timely information and retraining for staff can be a significant cause of stress.

Restructuring, redundancies and the lack of union consultation leads to a collective sense of insecurity amongst workers. These are hazards that should be identified in a full risk assessment on stress, with control measures implemented that remove or reduce the hazards, at source wherever possible.

However well intentioned, mental health first aiders and counselling helplines do not remove or reduce the risk to workers’ mental health by one iota. Instead of supporting their employer’s resilience initiatives, safety reps need to bring workers together to resist them.

Workers should talk to their co-workers to find out what workplace factors are actually causing or contributing to the stress. The collective response is often: “Thanks for the fruit, yoga and Tardis, but how about treating working people with the respect we deserve?”


Hazards organise webpages.
Hazards work-related mental health webpages.
Hazards work-related suicide webpages.

Health and safety statistics 2021/22, HSE, 23 November 2022.
HSE Working Minds campaign.

TUC guide to responding to harmful work-related stress.
Tackling workplace stress using the HSE Stress Management Standards, TUC and HSE guidance for health and safety representatives.
TUC workbook on mental health in the workplace.



Post chief forced to admit workforce tracking 

Simon Thompson was hauled back in front of the business select committee in February 2023 after MPs felt he did not give “wholly correct” answers during an earlier appearance.

Darren Jones, chair of the select committee, said since that appearance he had received almost 1,500 communications, including various images of charts used by management and testimony from workers that showed tracking information from PDAs [postal digital assistants] was “100 per cent being used” to discipline and performance-manage staff.

Each postal worker carries a PDA on their route which gathers information on how long they take to complete their round, and uses yellow dots that grow the longer a worker is stationary.

Evidence shown by the committee included several charts showing the performance of workers – with their names redacted – one of which included a handwritten note saying “don’t get caught” in reference to the slowest posties.

“We were alarmed to see that and it definitely breaches our policy,” said Thompson. “Anything on there that says ‘Don’t get caught’ is clearly not what we do and I don’t believe it is representative of what happens [across Royal Mail]. We saw this evidence the other day and it is actually a breach of our very clear policy and agreement with the Communications Workers Union (CWU).”


Precarious work stresses you out 

Insecure work can deprive people of the financial benefits of secure employment and the social benefits of regular routine, valued social status and positive social interactions.

A Kings College London (KCL) review of evidence from 32 studies found that several reported experiences of stress, exhaustion, anxiety, depression and other emotions such as frustration, guilt and low self-esteem.

Co-author Dr Annie Irvine from KCL’s Centre for Society & Mental Health, noted “that beyond offering living wages and the social protection of sick pay, workers’ mental health may improve through more predictable working hours and better working relationships.”

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Patching up stressed workers and sending them back or helping them become more ‘resilient’ is a bad answer to a really bad problem. Workers don’t need thicker skins, says safety organiser Dave Smith. They need to challenge the working conditions that created toxic workplaces in the first place.

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Post chief forced to admit workforce tracking 
Precarious work stresses you out 

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