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The Dr Mike Drayton Column

18-07-2006

Did you consider throwing a sickie this morning? Do you work in the public sector? Do you ever feel fed up and sick to the stomach about the prospects of going into work?

I worked in the NHS for 20 years and I frequently felt like that and I was tempted to go off sick. So, you are not alone. According to today's paper, rates of sickness in civil servants and council workers are higher than ever. The government's response is to ‘clamp down' on high sickness rates.

Mr Blair, why not try to understand the problem rather than ‘clamping down'?

Most people go off sick because of minor ailments such as colds and flu, but 46% of employers report an increase in stress related illness. This figure rises to 56% in the public sector. These are teachers, nurses, people who work in benefits offices and bin men. All are essential to maintaining a stable society.

There are many reasons for public sector workers getting sick, stressed or throwing sickies; long hours, poor working conditions and low pay being the obvious ones.

Stress and burnout are common especially in people whose jobs bring them into contact with distressed people. Most people cope with this most of the time. Nevertheless, on occasion, many workers home at the end of the day feeling upset, fed up and angry.

When people are asked they will often attribute their stress to conflicts with 'difficult' colleagues or department politics, rather than the work itself. They say, I don't mind the patients/clients/kids/villains, so much; it's the people I have to work with who do my head in.

Why is this? Quite simply, working with people who are distressed makes us anxious. This anxiety then gets passed around within the organization. It's as contagious as flu - and in the long term even more damaging. For example a teenager at school may not understand something and feel stupid and incompetent.

This is a highly unpleasant belief to hold so he blames his teacher.

As revenge he may then be disruptive in class. His teacher may find him difficult to manage and begins to feel stupid and incompetent as a teacher. Again, this is hard to admit to one's colleagues. However, she may feel able to complain to colleagues in the staffroom about how she feels unsupported by the Head. This gets back to the head, second hand, and he begins to feel incompetent, thinking, “Why couldn't she just tell me? Why does she run me down behind my back? He goes home feeling hurt and upset wonderingwhy he ever wanted to be a teacher and dreading the following days work.

Thus the feelings get passed around in an unconscious process in which the Head comes to experience the distress of the pupil in a very real and tangible way. This is a fairly simplistic example that shows how the hurt and pain suffered by service users, gets into the systems of service providers in an unconscious and emotionally powerful way. This process results in stressed and unhappy workers and ‘sick' organisations.

Good organisations know this and provide a culture where stress and strong feelings can be talked about in an open frank way without fear of repercussions. This is the opposite to the blame culture evident in many public sector organisations.

That's the trouble with clamping down on something.

The problem doesn't get solved but gets acted out in even more workplace problems.

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