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I’m getting disillusioned about work pressures. I used to believe that we could change the world and that, in some small way, I could contribute.

In my career I have put a lot of effort into supporting employees and encouraging them to speak out against unfair and unreasonable demands at work. Where I could, I’ve also advised employers on how to improve conditions and protect the psychological welfare of staff.

The debilitating effects of work pressures on employees are well known, and some employers are concerned enough to do what they can to improve working practices and reduce stress and provide resources to encourage staff wellbeing.

On the up?

Until the early 2000s things did seem to be improving. Awareness generally was growing, helped by changes to the law and advice from organisations like the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), Employee Assistance Programmes, and many other groups and bodies.

And then down!

Then the crunch came. Pressures increased overnight as the ubiquitous ‘austerity’ measures were touted as the remedy for the near terminal state of national economies. To make a longer story short, workplace pressures on employees have now increased to near breaking-point in some sectors, and everywhere you look there’s evidence of falling standards in how staff are cared for.

It gets worse

More sinister yet, this has been accompanied by increased sense of powerlessness and acceptance among employees themselves. Not all employees of course, but in my work I have seen a real shift; employees, particularly the younger ones, are no longer as militant or ready to raise their voices when their employers subject them to unfair pressure.

Staff are still ready to complain, but they don’t do it in the right places. In fact – and this is why I used the word ‘sinister’ earlier – I’ve heard many young people (some in my own family) defend their employers’ dodgy demands because times are hard!

They’ll tell me that they are “lucky to have a job” or that “it’s the same for everyone”, thus normalising the trend towards putting profits before people across the board.

Symptoms of stress

It’s easy to feel trapped at work. One of the multiple effects of stress is that it skews your judgement. It can produce a boiled frog scenario; the change is so gradual that nobody notices and employees (and we, the public) are lulled into acceptance as standards fall and pressures on staff increase, until it’s too late.

Change what you can

I have long promoted an idea that, “When you can’t change the system, change your bit of it”. If the problem is too big – and let’s face it, most of us cannot influence political and economic trends, or our employers’ policies – then break it down and tackle the part you can handle.

Depending where you sit in a system this means the group, team, section where you can have influence (I’m writing about work here but this also includes the family and personal networks). In some cases you’ll find that the only part of the system you can influence is yourself.

It goes without saying that you are the most important part of the equation. So you are under intense and unfair demand at work and the pressure’s getting to you. Unless you save yourself first you’ll soon be in no state to help yourself or others.

An antidote

There is no easy remedy for the current, sad and pernicious, decline in general concern for staff welfare. If you choose your battles wisely though, and focus on what you can change, it is possible to survive and even flourish where previously you’d felt stressed and overwhelmed.

A proviso

If you are tempted to switch off at this point, remember that if you feel, stressed, tired, angry, frustrated – all normal stress responses when under unfair pressure – you’ll you won’t feel particularly open to these ideas. But don’t shoot the messenger by rejecting sensible advice.

Some people have said, for example, that I shouldn’t expect employees to look after themselves. That promoting a message of individual self-care and personal resilience I’m pandering to employers by shifting the responsibility onto employees.

In an ideal world perhaps we wouldn’t need to talk about personal resilience in relation to work but, as we know, things are far from ideal. However blame-worthy an employer might be – and there’s plenty to go round – it still doesn’t remove the personal responsibility we have for ourselves. This is even more true if you are unhappy at work, whatever the cause.

Surviving work pressures…

To summarise, work pressure and ever-increasing demand are a fact of life in many situations. Is some sectors this means that quality of life is a pipe-dream and simply getting through each day makes survival the only priority.

The causes, who is to blame, and however unjust it is… these are all secondary to being resilient enough to cope.

If you want to blame the boss for your work pressures, do it in the right place to and make yourself heard. Before you do though, ensure you are combat-ready by attending to your own psychological welfare. Techniques for developing personal resilience will help you do that.

Some of the most influential studies in work pressures and Personal Resilience started with medical teams in war zones, and the methods and advice that are offered to help people survive work pressures have been proved effective in the most challenging scenarios.

… and flourishing

Nobody would expect to run a marathon without some serious training beforehand. We all understand the importance of stamina in the face of intense physical demand. To complete the course you must be in good shape.

The pressure and demand of many jobs requires a different kind of stamina. It helps to be in good physical shape, but mental stamina – psychological habits that will sustain you – is more important. Personal resilience may sound like a bit of a buzz-phrase, but it is at the heart of wellbeing when it comes to responding to crisis or high demand, wherever it occurs.

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