My experience of workplace stress, in an organisation that didn’t see occupational stress as an issue: In conversation with Kate Field

Stress and Burnout, we all have different experiences around stress. Like a tree, the branches and leaves are what we see, but what are in the roots? We need to remove the leaves and acknowledge what is underneath.

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Kate Field has never had a diagnosed mental illness or received medical treatment for her mental health. But like so many, she has certainly suffered with her mental health.

In this interview, Kate tells me about a role in which her stress built to the point that she had a panic attack on the way to work. She talks about the company culture that contributed to her mental ill health and looks at some of the ways in which individuals and organisations can prevent stress from building to unmanageable levels.

Kate Field is now Global Head of Health, Safety and Wellbeing at the BSI. She has taken a leading role in developing ISO 45003, the first global standard giving practical guidance on managing psychological health in the workplace. (The experiences Kate shares were with a previous employer, not BSI.)

This interview is part of a series for Women in Health and Safety. As a member of the committee my goal is to amplify the voices of women in the profession. Some of the topics covered affect women more than men. Some are deeply personal. It’s my belief that we bring our whole selves to work and therefore should be able to talk about all sorts of issues that affect us, day-to-day, in a work setting.

Two things have struck me throughout this series. 1) We all have so much in common. 2) People are often very willing to open up, if they’re given a safe opportunity to do so with someone who is willing to listen without judgement. So, my hope it that issues discussed in this series resonate with readers, perhaps making some feel less alone, perhaps even giving some the confidence to share their own stories. I also hope readers will be encouraged to check in on colleagues, talk about the whole selves we bring to work and be there to listen.

What led to your work-related stress?

“The thing with occupational stress-related mental ill health is it builds up over time, it’s not just one thing that causes it. I had been in the role for around a year and there was a huge amount of pressure to deliver particular pieces of work. I was working long hours and had no support. At the same time, my partner was working abroad, which meant I didn’t have the usual level of support at home. And it was winter, which meant I wasn’t getting out to exercise that much. It was a culmination of factors. My stress built over several months and I began to recognise that I was feeling excess pressure.”

How did the stress manifest itself?

“Driving to work I started to notice anxiety as I got closer to the office. It was almost a fear about what the day was going to bring. That lasted around two or three weeks. Then I remember vividly driving to work one day, feeling that build-up of anxiety. I was hyperventilating and had to pull over. It wasn’t diagnosed, but I’m going to call it a panic attack based on what I know. It was at that point that I realised this was not an acceptable way of living.

“I knew that the role wasn’t going to change and that it was a question of leaving. The culture of the organisation was such that there was nothing I was going to be able to do to change it. I decided to leave. And once I knew I was leaving, I felt the pressure was off.

“It was very interesting for me as a health and safety professional, who has done a lot on occupational stress, to experience it, and know what is feasible and what isn’t.”

Once you got out of that environment that was causing your stress, was that the end of your workplace anxiety, stress and panic attacks?

“Yes absolutely. I’ve never experienced any panic attack since. There are always moments of stress in people’s lives, stress is natural. For me, there have been moments it has felt excessive. But I’m much more alert to it now and it’s never built up like it did back then.”

What role did workplace culture have on your mental health?

“The organisation simply did not see occupational stress as an issue, although they had high absence rates associated with it! They had a process around stress for legal reasons because they were a large organisation, but really, if you suffered you were seen to be weak or broken and they thought it was nothing to do with them.

“Some months before my panic attack they were seeking to dismiss a senior member of staff, and they were looking to do it on the grounds of performance. But this individual had highlighted that they’d been suffering with occupational stress for a prolonged period, and that they hadn’t got any support. And I remember vividly sitting down and doing an occupational stress risk assessment with them. It was clear that this individual had been suffering for some time and had raise the issue but the organisation simply were not going to recognise it or take any steps to help. They were simply looking for a means of sacking the individual. That was really telling experience for me.”

As an occupational health & safety professional working in an organisation that didn’t care about work-related stress, had you been able to do anything to support other employees’ mental health at an organisational level?

“As much as I tried, I couldn’t make a difference in terms of prevention and changing the culture, but I managed to implement an employee assistance program, which had counselling access. I promoted this service, and we had a take-up rate of 20% (normal EAP take-up is usually around 6/7%). I had a number of colleagues speak to me confidentially about the huge difference the service had made. I also delivered mental health and stress awareness training, because it was such a big issue at the at the organisation. So many people came up to me and thanked me after that training. They said it had made them aware that they were suffering with the symptoms of stress and potentially mental illness, and for me that was positive – recognising it is the first step to taking action. But as an organisation, they should have been preventing work-related stress in the first place.”

With ISO 45003, it must feel good to be in a position where you’re able to influence the support that so many people get within their own organisations?

“Yes. It’s great. In the UK the stress management standards have been around for a long time, and they have helped, but they just never really landed. I am so excited that there is now some international guidance for organisations to help tackle this. I still think it’s going to be a long journey and not all organisations are going to do it well. But to be able to facilitate this at a global level is hugely, hugely important for me.

“I was involved with the HSE stress management standards roll out many years ago too. I know organisations do struggle with it and there are still so many misconceptions about mental ill-health. So, to be able to help break down those barriers is important. It has always been important to me because it’s such an overlooked area.”

What should be done at an organisational level to prevent burnout?

“Focus on prevention. Do the work in advance. Do the organisational risk assessment. Identify what is causing potential issues within the organisation. Don’t just focus on individuals. At the organisation where I worked and suffered work-related stress, they only did stress risk assessment on individuals once a problem arose – that is completely missing the point. There were systemic issues with bullying, excessive working hours, excessive demands, lack of support – the whole culture of the organisation was one where people were not considered important.

“A lot of organisations do engagement surveys where they’ll touch on questions around work-life balance, and sometimes work-related stress or mental ill health. They’re a good start but often organisations fail to go further. They identify hotspots where there might be an issue, but then they need to dive into those and do focus groups to really unpick what the issues are. Once you’ve done that, it’s much clearer to identify what actions you can take.”

What can senior leaders to do create a positive workplace culture?

“One of the big things is for leaders to understand how their behaviours and attitudes impact people down the whole of their line management chain and more widely. An easy one is not sending emails out of hours. Often leaders do send emails out of hours and that sets a perception, perhaps unconsciously, around what is required in terms of working hours, performance, and delivery.

“One of my biggest bug bears is people working when they’re on vacation. It may sound glib, but take the President of the United States, or the UK Prime Minister – they have deputies, if they weren’t able to function, the countries wouldn’t stop. It comes back to the point that it’s important for leaders to recognise time away is important and they are setting the culture of the organisation.

“For some people it’s worse for their mental health if they don’t check their emails because they worry about it. So, you’ve got to understand that kind of personal element to it. But there are still things you can do so that you don’t make others feel pressured to do the same, like setting emails up to not send until 09.00 the next day. It’s being aware of that and the culture that it creates.

“Most importantly, create an atmosphere of openness, a culture of trust, where individuals feel comfortable about having a conversation with their line managers.”

What can we do as individuals to help prevent our own burnout?

“Training and awareness is so important. 20 years ago, I wouldn’t have had the same awareness to recognise something in myself becoming problematic. Nearly two decades of various forms of training, including mindfulness and mental health first aid, and significant experience, I’m now much more alert to my own triggers and early warning signs that I might be starting to feel excess pressure.

“For example, I’ve got a lot of deadlines at the moment and yesterday I felt under a lot pressure. But I knew that what I needed to do was to get out and do some exercise. I did, and it made a big difference. As individuals it’s important to understand our own triggers and ways in which we can support ourselves It’s also important to recognise when the issue is an imbalance at work, so I also had a conversation with my line manager so we could agree priorities.”

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