Helsinki calling - the stress of talking about stress

Image of James Tracey

23 / 11 / 2015 4.16pm

James Tracey is a senior HR manager at Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust and sits on the Health, Safety and Wellbeing Partnership Group (HSWPG).

On receiving an invite to go and give a talk at the European Hospital and Healthcare Employers’ Association (HOSPEEM/EPSU) conference in Helsinki with my staff side co-chair from the HSWPG, I was immediately caught in a dilemma. 

I admit I was half expecting it. We had been asked to attend the previous HOSPEEM/EPSU conference in Paris to talk about our Backpack guide to avoiding musculoskeletal injuries and that had gone well. This new conference was on psychosocial risks and stress at work and we had done a great deal of work in the HSWPG in this area, including:

  • working closely with Zeal Solutions to produce a report on how stress can be influenced by factors at work which we knew was a really valuable piece of work.
  • developing and publishing our own Guidance on prevention and management of stress in the workplace on the back of that research
  • highlighting the benefits of working in partnership through publication and other outputs
  • being an exemplar of what the conference was all about.
Then the dilemma. I hate flying. I hate public speaking. I didn’t speak a word of Finnish.

Then the realisation hit me. I was beginning to feel stressed about supporting people how to cope with stress. I could see that demands and a (lack of) control were causing me to feel this way.

I know what the training says. I know that personal resilience is nothing without effective risk assessment. I know that if you don’t look after yourself, you are no good to anyone else. I know no-one is infallible. I know you do not have to have an underlying mental health condition to feel the effects of stress.

Like any risk assessment, in knowing that I could not remove or avoid the risk, I started to put plans in place to minimise the impact of the risk. I started to prepare. I still felt apprehensive but I felt more in control. I had managed the demands and I was ready.

On boarding the plane, I felt oddly calm. I had reached acceptance.

In terms of the presentation, I was focussed and ready. Even when I was told that it would be filmed and broadcast, live, across the internet, I did not flinch. I had faced my demons and conquered them.

Anyone could read this and think “I wish the only stress I had was a trip to Finland!!” That may miss the point. My experience is a microcosm for anyone experiencing stress at work. I was being exposed to some of my greatest pressures, felt no control and I had very high expectations of myself. I had huge demands at work trying to help others. Yet for someone who knows a lot about this area, it still crept up on me.

Stress can affect anyone at any time on any level. We know that over 30% of those surveyed under the NHS Staff Survey have felt stress at work in the past 12 months. We know that healthcare workers in the UK feel more stress than any other occupational group, according to the Health and Safety Executive. We know that this just does not include doctors and nurses, but medical secretaries, porters and Paramedics…… and the occasional senior human resources manager.

It is also important not to judge what it is that causes the stress. The impact of stress to the individual can be as great as a serious untoward incident. An individual should not feel ashamed of the way they feel. We have a duty in the NHS not to judge what is making someone feel unwell, but why and what we can do to stop it. We have to de-stigmatise this so people can feel comfortable in openly discussing what they feel and why they feel it.

However, importantly, we do not have to accept it. We can make interventions. We can reduce it. Stress is not inevitable. Managing it is a journey, which unlike Helsinki, does not have a destination. It’s constant and moving and we always need to appraise how we manage the risk.

It’s important that we do within the NHS. There are too many people counting on us.

As for the Finnish speaking, I made sure I learned the word for “thank you” which is Kiitos. It’s a start...

Further information

Download the HSWPGs Guidance on prevention and management of stress in the workplace

Find out more about emotional wellbeing access the Emotional wellbeing toolkit

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