Riding the wave of wellbeing at work

Ella Rhodes reports from the Occupational Psychology session of the Health and Wellbeing at Work conference held at Birmingham’s NEC.


What makes for a good day at work? Paula Brockwell, Head of Business Psychology, Robertson Cooper, wants to find out and help more people have more good days at work. In recent research she asked 1500 people whether they were having a good day at work: only 18 per cent said they had five good days at work a week. Respondents largely said the most important things for them to have a good day were completing tasks, relationships and a lack of barriers to their work. Perhaps surprisingly to those in psychology they rated things like work–life balance, time for lunch and fresh air during the day as unimportant. This gives a picture that people often simply want to just get through the day, with no barriers getting in the way, Brockwell said this can lead to a culture of over-engagement and a lot of pressure. 

People come to work in one of four ‘modes’, Brockwell said, ranging from those who expect no fulfilment at work, to those who put their own wellbeing on the line for the good of an organisation. How they view work and engage with an organisation seems to affect how many good days they have – those with the most good days are what Brockwell described as ‘sustainably engaged’. They know work is a two-way street and that looking after their own health and wellbeing is as important as doing well for an organisation. These people have around 4.1 good days a week. 

In thinking about introducing wellbeing interventions in the workplace, we have to consider individual engagement but also the culture of any particular organisation. Brockwell advised the audience that employers should consider what people expect from their organisation and think about resetting that baseline connection people have with a company. Employees need to feel like they’re equal partners within organisations before we start to build what Brockwell calls a ‘good day at work’ mindset and climate. 

Psychologist Dr Noreen Tehrani and Jonathan Crabtree, Occupational Nurse Advisor for Hampshire County Council, Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services, have been working together on a psychological surveillance and treatment programme for people working in the emergency services. Crabtree explained a psychological surveillance project started in response to both legislation and increasing referrals to occupational health for mental health issues, to identify officers who may need more psychological support, and also the particular psychological challenges of each department within the force.

 In 2016 just over 750 officers and staff in the constabulary were screened for mental health problems using a 359-item questionnaire. Those showing concerning scores were offered structured interviews with occupational health advisers or counsellors, and those with clinically significant scores an assessment by a psychologist. These initial questionnaires revealed much higher-than-average rates of anxiety, depression and PTSD in officers working within child abuse investigations, crime scene investigations and roads policing. Those who didn’t require trauma therapy, were offered resilience training, lifestyle advice and fitness support. Crabtree said the feedback from staff and officers had been amazing and they hope to be able to identify trends and certain stressors within each department of the constabulary to be able to tailor support. 

Trauma-specialist Tehrani, also works with Hampshire and other police forces in the UK, described the risk factors for trauma, included childhood trauma, low coping skills and high levels of empathy. As well as this, poor peer support and leadership can be major factors into whether someone goes on to develop PTSD. 

NHS treatments for mental health issues are often not suitable for emergency services personnel who usually work shifts and long hours. Organisations such as this need programmes of support that can fit with the organisation itself. Tehrani also emphasised a need for such services to help people with their rehabilitation back into work, rather than just treating the trauma and nothing more. She went on to describe a successful trauma therapy programme for emergency services, usually providing treatment within a week following referral, with weekly sessions and around nine hours of therapy overall. 

Dr Jo Lloyd (Goldsmiths University of London) a lecturer and researcher in occupational psychology who also carries out work with Gendered Intelligence, a not-for-profit community interest company that provides trans awareness training among other trans-specific educative and consultancy services, spoke about the discrimination and victimisation faced by LGBTQ people in the workplace. As Lloyd pointed out, even the expectation of this discrimination can be damaging, with some people turning this expected or experienced transphobia or homophobia inward. Some people in these populations also feel a constant need to manage their identities in every new situation they encounter. 

Organisations obviously have a monumental role to play in fighting these types of discrimination, and this can be done through diversity-minded practices, structured interviews during selection, diversity training and policies. However, Lloyd said it’s important to not only focus on organisations: while it’s in no way an individual’s fault if they experience these things, the mindsets they bring to work can intensify the impact that difficult and challenging events have on their health and wellbeing. One focus could be ‘psychological flexibility’, an individual’s ability to be mindful and aware of how they’re thinking and feeling in the moment. This sense of mindfulness then allows them to be more focused on their valued or meaningful life directions. Together these two sets of actions work to enhance wellbeing and life effectiveness. 

Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) is a tool by which such flexibility can be increased. Lloyd and her colleagues carried out a meta-analysis, finding that psychological flexibility in the workplace led to better psychological and physical health, enhanced productivity and more positive attitudes to work; and that ACT training improved psychological health, productivity and work-related attitudes. In a later sample of 300 employers of LGB people, psychological flexibility had a protective effect in workplaces with discrimination. In a trans population higher flexibility decreased the effect of transphobic discrimination, internalised transphobia and identity concealment.

Lloyd concluded enhancing psychological flexibility could be beneficial for LGBTQ employees, but emphasised that any intervention of this kind shouldn’t be undertaken without also addressing any discrimination problems inherent in the workplace. 

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