by Dr SJ Lennie, Lecturer in Policing Organisation and Practice at The Open University
I am a lecturer and researcher at the Open University and as an ex-police officer I care deeply about the mental health of the police, and this is where the majority of my research is focussed. I am also passionate about the wider role of organisational culture in employee wellbeing, and though I welcome the more recent focus on mental health within society and business, I am increasingly frustrated by what I see as organisation’s tokenistic attitude to wellbeing.
Though we may feel we have moved on from the obligatory fruit basket by the water cooler approach to mental health, fundamentally not much has changed for the employee. A recent article by Cholteeva (2022) identifies a third of organisations as ‘wellbeing washing’, where organisations are publicly supporting mental health, but not supporting employees internally or through action.
Wellbeing is not something that can be addressed via posting on social media, or an event held at head office on a specified day a year; it is not enough to offer counselling or train people in mental health first aid (though these are good things) – organisations have a responsibility to prevent mental ill-health through work, and this means threading wellbeing and a genuine concern for employee mental health in all policy and procedure. To quote the Health and Safety Executive (no date):
‘Employers have a legal duty to protect workers from stress at work by doing a risk assessment and acting on it.’
The key word for me here is protect. It’s about not making people ill in the first place and a lot of this is about giving people time and space to do the things that keep them well, also known as self-care. Though many organisations espouse a flexible and accommodating operating model, an employee’s ability to practice self-care is often dependent on their workload and organisational culture, and both are often limiting, leading to an overworked and stressed workforce. The irony is that the more stressed people are, the less productive they are too (LeBlanc, 2009).
The Health and Safety Executive defines stress as the ‘adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them’ (HSE, no date). Physiologically stress is understood as any stimuli that increases arousal within the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) and this is key to our physical and psychological health (Ziegler, 2012).
The ANS consists of the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) and the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS). It is the SNS that activates in response to both physical and psychological stress and is more commonly known as the fight or flight response. If, for example, you are facing a threat and need to respond, the SNS will quickly mobilize your body to take action: adrenaline and cortisol flood the body, raising your heart rate and blood pressure, dilating pupils and pumping muscles, priming you to meet that threat. As the original intention of the SNS response is to survive a short-term threat, long term health regulation such as the digestive and immune system shut down.
Once the threat has passed, the PNS will then start to dampen these responses, slowly returning your body to its normal, resting state. This is why the PNS is know as ‘rest and digest’: literally the engagement of the digestive system, the body calms down, the heart rate reduces as less chemicals are circulating the system, energy is conversed to be used later, the immune system is able to act and cognitive functioning is engaged (Tindle and Tadi, 2021).
These two systems work in conjunction to manage the body’s responses depending upon the situation and need. Chronic stress occurs when the body experiences stressors with such frequency or intensity that the autonomic nervous system does not have an adequate chance to activate the relaxation response on a regular basis. This means that the body remains in a constant state of physiological arousal. Chronic stress can lead to an impairment of cognitive functioning, and lead to mental ill-health such as anxiety and depression. Chronic stress can also lead cardiovascular disease (CVD), diabetes, autoimmune diseases, upper respiratory infections (URIs), and poorer wound healing (Cohen et al., 2012; Sawar et al., 2021).
Let’s focus in here: stress also affects cognitive performance. The brain becomes focused on the immediate here and now and the access of information from multiple sources and memory is restricted, and consequently stress effects decision making and effectiveness on tasks that require divided processing. Chronic stress is not good for productivity (LeBlanc, 2009).
However, ‘pressure and workload’ are common stresses within organisations with relentless workloads and increasing expectations dominating culture (Cholteeva, 2022). More and more employees are struggling to switch off, or switch to their PNS. Organisations have a responsibility to not only reduce the stress of the workforce but to actively support them to rest and digest, and it is not only a protective action in regards employee mental and physical health, cognitive shut down is key to productivity.
The steps are simple, we know that yoga and meditation engage the PNS (Kumar et al., 2021) but as subjective as stress is, so is wellbeing and each employee needs the space and support to find out what works for them and time to engage in activities in a meaningful way, without the barriers of shame, guilt or fear.
But this takes time, and the true question is: are organisations truly willing to invest in their employees and give them time and space and the freedom from the pressure and demand of a punitive workload to enable themselves to be well? Too often wellbeing and good mental health are seen as the responsibility of the individual, but it is actually the gift of the organisation. The gift of time.
LeBlanc, V. R. (2009). The effects of acute stress on performance: implications for health professions education. Academic Medicine, 84(10), S25-S33.
Ziegler, M. G. (2012). Psychological stress and the autonomic nervous system. In Primer on the autonomic nervous system (pp. 291-293). Academic Press.
Health and Safety Executive (HSE) (Not Date) Work Related Stress and How to Manage It. [available at https://www.hse.gov.uk/stress/overview.htm Accessed on: 28th October 2022.
Kumar, S., Kumar, B., Kumari, R., & Kumari, M. Impact of Yoga on the Human Body’s Parasympathetic Nervous System.
Tindle, J., & Tadi, P. (2021). Neuroanatomy, parasympathetic nervous system. In StatPearls [Internet]. StatPearls Publishing.
Tafet, G.E. (2022) Neuroscience of Stress : From Neurobiology to Cognitive, Emotional and Behavioral Sciences. Cham: Springer International Publishing AG.
Golkar, A., Johansson, E., Kasahara, M., Osika, W., Perski, A., & Savic, I. (2014). The influence of work-related chronic stress on the regulation of emotion and on functional connectivity in the brain. PloS one, 9(9), e104550.
Cohen, S., Janicki-Deverts, D., Doyle, W. J., Miller, G. E., Frank, E., Rabin, B. S., & Turner, R. B. (2012). Chronic stress, glucocorticoid receptor resistance, inflammation, and disease risk. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 109(16), 5995-5999.
Huang, Jie; Wang, Yansong; You, Xuqun (2016-12-01). “The Job Demands-Resources Model and Job Burnout: The Mediating Role of Personal Resources”. Current Psychology. 35 (4): 562–569. doi:10.1007/s12144-015-9321-2. ISSN 1046-1310.
Xanthopoulou, D., A. B. Bakker, E. Demerouti and W. B. Schaufeli (2007). “The role of personal resources in the job demands-resources model.” International journal of stress management 14(2)
Cholteeva, Y. (2022) “More than a third of businesses are ‘wellbeing washing’, study shows.’ People Management. Accessed at: https://www.peoplemanagement.co.uk/article/1803077/third-businesses-wellbeing-washing-study-shows Accessed on: 30th October 2022.