Craig Dearden-Phillips: Stress at work is far more widespread than we thought...

...and it's best to do something about it before it becomes toxic

Craig Dearden-Phillips
Craig Dearden-Phillips

Every other week or so, I am contacted informally by someone (normally fairly senior) in our sector who is experiencing either stress, bullying or generalised "overwhelm" at work. I have always sensed that this sort of thing might be systemic, but tended to hold off saying so in public because my evidence was anecdotal.

Until now.

A recent survey of 850 people working for 238 mostly UK-based charities conducted by the union Unite reports that 80 per cent of staff feel under stress, while about half that number think their jobs are not good for their mental health. Just under a third say they do not feel valued at work.

Long hours, excessive workloads and management bullying are reported in the Unite survey as the main reasons people feel the way they do.

If this survey is right, these numbers are fairly frightening. They mean, in effect that employee wellbeing in our sector is comparable to that seen in many of the worst corners of the public and private sectors.

For a sector that sells itself on its values and its compassion, this makes for highly uncomfortable reading.

So what’s going on here? None of our organisations set off trying to fail its employees.

I would suggest that three factors are at work here.

First, most of the third sector is in economic difficulty and has been for some time. Some organisations are fighting for their lives, and this means that people get neglected in the endless change process this entails.

Second, as a sector we are simply not as good on the people side as we think we are. I know lots of commercial businesses that are far more switched on to staff wellbeing than are many charities.

Thousands of firms now invest in mental health training and support for employees before it becomes a big issue. Sure, it costs money, but a lot less than a long period of sickness or the departure of a key employee might entail. Employee wellbeing is good for business as well as good practice.

The third thing going on here is a bit more complicated. People who join a charity often do so with quite high expectations of job satisfaction and good relationships in the workplace. Indeed, they often join a charity in the hope of aligning their deeper human needs and values with their work.

However, they are often disappointed both by their lack of impact and by the conduct of people around them, including their managers. I see this all the time, particularly in people joining our sector from business or the public sector.

So what can be done? One thing is for our sector to move mental health at work rapidly up the senior agenda, as has happened in many progressive workplaces. This can mean making mental health first-aid training and supportive coaching available to employees under stress. This sends a strong message and will probably save money, not cost it.

Another is for boards and senior managers to review the risks to their charitable missions if a toxic work culture takes hold of their organisation. It means you can quickly lose impact and reputation.

It’s very commonly said but worth repeating that an organisation’s main assets are its people. Nurture them and they will progress. Neglect them and your organisation and its mission will suffer.

Thank-you, Unite, for a timely report. Let us all consider its consequences.

Craig Dearden-Phillips is an independent adviser to chief executives and boards, and leads Social Club, a network of social purpose leaders

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