Approaches to workplace stress: what do sociological debates have to do with it?

Workplace stress is a focus of much public discussion today – and for good reason. The Stress and Wellbeing survey, conducted by the Australian Psychological Society, found that, while workplace wellbeing fluctuated year on year that the survey was undertaken, it was lower in 2015 to what it had been in 2011 while workplace stress was higher. This blog explores how sociological knowledge can help to illuminate current debates faced by organisations about how best to approach workplace stress.

Health and wellbeing interventions that attempt to lessen workplace stress form part of what is commonly referred to as public health or preventive health. As the name suggests, public/preventive health approaches seek to prevent, rather than treat, illness and disease, and they focus on population-level interventions to do so. That is, this approach takes as its focus entire populations of people rather than individuals and it seeks to improve the conditions of their health before they become unwell.

The field of preventive health is often traced back to the work of Geoffrey Rose and his argument that preventive interventions are better directed at reducing population-level risks of disease, rather than being directed at susceptible individuals within the population. In other words, Rose thought that it is more effective to focus resources on changing the social conditions that effect the entire population’s health, than to focus on people most likely to develop specific diseases. This is because Rose saw social conditions as impacting health and setting the context for health-impacting behaviours.

Unpacking Rose’s ideas in this way is instructive. Because a significant criticism of workplace wellbeing interventions is that they focus on individual responses to stressors and that, in doing so, they fail to recognise the way workplaces can cause stress. Put simply, the criticism is that many of these interventions do not address the underlying social contexts of health-impacting behaviours. The contexts that Rose thought have the most impact on our health.

Though they occur in the health field, these arguments present an age-old debate from the social sciences about what informs peoples behaviours: structure or agency. The structure agency debate is a debate about what has the greatest explanatory power in explaining human experience; the social context in which we live, or the individual choices that we make? While this debate is explicit in the social sciences, it is tacit in most other spheres of life too – including public policy and organisational policy.

What does this mean for workplaces that may have just purchased an office share bike or started a lunch time walking group? The good news is that preventive health is not a zero-sum game. While researchers continue to develop complex arguments attempting to quantify the returns likely in each approach – focusing on prevention for whole populations or targeted interventions for specific individual types – it is possible to promote increased exercise and better nutrition and still focus on the underlying social conditions which contribute to stress and ill health. What this does require though, are different tools to make assessment about levels of stress and wellbeing and their underlying causes in your workplace.

Rapid Context can help your organisation identify barriers to staff health and wellbeing. Contact us to find out how.

Angie Bletsas is a senior consultant at Rapid Context. She specialises in in critical analysis, academic and applied research project design and management. Specialist expertise in social policy.

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