top of page
  • Writer's pictureSteve Crabb

Why the heck is wellbeing so stressful?

You can’t stick a plaster over a septic wound and hope it will heal, can you? No matter how good a fist aider you are, there are some things, which require the attention of a specialist.

when stress management is stressful we know there is a problem

My questions is why is it that despite there now being 1000's of newly trained Mental Health First Aiders and Champions; with stress management initiatives run by caring and duty-bound companies and hardworking HR departments, are workplace stress statistics still so appalling?

And they are appalling; don’t take my word for it, check out the November 2018 research from the HSE, which states that work related stress shows signs of increasing in recent years..

I’ll give you a new perspective on this, by referencing a talk I gave to a group of HR executives on May 15th Mental Health Awareness Day. 

During the Q and A session, the head of HR for a large corporation asked the panel for some advice.

"What is your opinion on the increasing rise of stress within Mental Health First -Aiders, and Champions? Have you experienced this with other companies and if so what are the causes, and what can be done about it?"

All great questions and the hot potato was passed my way.

Quite a few in the room were nodding their heads in acknowledgment as she asked her questions, so I asked the group if others had a similar experience? Most of the hands in the room went up.

It starts by recognizing:

“If your not part of the solution then you are part of the problem.”

Would you ever consult a dentist who had rotten teeth or a financial consultant who was bankrupt? The answer is probably no because there is an incongruence when people do not walk the talk. 

Current research shows that stress among HR personnel is at an all-time high, excuse me for being confused, but why are the people trained to reduce stress, experiencing excessive stress? Surely if they are trained to assist people experiencing stress they should be able to manage stress themselves. If not, then we are dealing with people who have what I call a "bookish knowledge about the subject."


As Bruce Lee once said

"If you know a subject but can't do it, then you don't KNOW the subject."

There are several reasons for HR being one of the most stressed professions; they are:

•   Firstly, there is are common misunderstandings around the causes (and solutions) to stress amongst many HR professionals, including those trained to coach others to deal with stress. The main focus is on policies and procedures (management standards) and not on mindset.

•   Secondly, most first aiders and champions are coaching above their pay grade. I’ll explain what this is and why it’s a problem shortly.

•   Thirdly, there is a negative impact on both the person who is stressed when they can’t be helped by HR (or are referred on to a mental health expert) and for the person unable to assist namely the First Aiders and Champions.

•   Fourthly (and unfortunately not finally) the conditions for successful stress management support given by First Aiders and Champions are difficult to establish for most “in house” first aiders. 

Let me be clear here; I am not bashing HR, Mental Health First Aiders, or Champions; most people in these roles have great intentions. Nor am I bashing the Mental Health First Aid initiative, it's a great start albeit incomplete. However, good intentions aren’t enough for the person who is burnt out or on the verge of having a breakdown. First aiders and champions do at least throw people in need a lifeline; which is better than no aid, so I congratulate anyone who has stepped forward to be of service to their work colleagues. 

Let me address each of the four points in turn.

POINT NUMBER ONE – misunderstanding.

Stress is not something we have; it is something people do! They do it through their thinking, which generates the feelings and emotions we call stress. It’s never the outside world that creates stress; it’s how people think about the outside world. If it were the outside world, then two people in the same circumstances would both experience stress, and that’s not the case.

For example; you can have two people dealing with the same workload demands, control, change, relationships, roles and support, and one is stressed, and the other person isn’t. How can that be so?

The difference is one has learned how to cope, and the other hasn’t – yet! One person is “doing stress,” the other isn’t.

If First Aiders and Champions aren’t trained to see this distinction and they aren’t adequately trained to coach people to see this for themselves and if they aren't trained to coach staff on how to effectively manage their thinking and emotions then very little changes.  

If they are trained in the distinction as mentioned above, then they would be better able to manage their own stress levels, wouldn’t they? That is not the case, so we have a problem, Houston! 

POINT NUMBER TWO – your pay grade.

Most First Aider and Champion training cover 1 to 3-day certification courses. I asked the group, do they sincerely believe this is sufficient training to be able to deal with human psychology to any level of competency? 

I asked the group to think of coaching as they would customer service; it’s either excellent or poor. There is no in-between. 

Excellent coaches’ work with clients, so they no longer do stress, and then coach them to be more resilient and better able to cope, if they don’t do this, then the coaching is poor. To operate to this standard requires 100’s (even 1000's) of hours of study and practice. 

Few First Aiders have invested this degree of time and commitment to mastering their profession, and stress management coaching is a profession and not a hobby. 

The litmus tests for excellent stress management coaching for me are:

 1) Can you coach someone who has had or is on the verge of a breakdown; and do you know how to deal with someone who is having a panic attack?  

2) Do you have a self-care practice?

3) Are you able to teach/coach this to others?

If the answer is no to any of these tests, then there is work to be done. 

Most First Aiders and champions are coaching above their pay grade (beyond their current skills and capabilities) simply because the depth of training and coaching is generally inadequate to pass the above tests.

Now some in HR will counter this by saying, we are not in the business of therapy; so we refer people who are really struggling with break downs or panic on to mental health specialists. This leads neatly to point number three.

POINT NUMBER THREE – unable to assist.

Dealing with stress isn’t therapy. 

Having been a professional coach for nearly twenty years; and for the first ten years working with clients with mental health issues, there is another distinction that most in HR don’t recognise. Which is that the way we refer to stress has changed over the past ten years.

It seems that any experience of stress; is now regarded as a mental health issue, which means the person who is struggling to cope has now been labeled as having a mental health issue, when what they really have is an educational skill issue.

Many who would come forward to seek assistance are reluctant because of what is regarded as a career-limiting move. Stigma is still a big problem within many companies. Many will prefer to grin and bear stress then seek aid and run the risk of being passed over for promotion.

It takes courage to seek assistance. Especially from a colleague;  to then be referred on because of a mental health issue can be demoralizing. 

So now we have an employee who is passed onto a therapist, and we have a well-intentioned First Aider or Champion who isn’t able to help. When people fail to achieve the expectation of being able to help someone, many take this personally and believe they are not good enough. And they are right; they aren’t good enough – yet! 

Having a high expectation of an outcome and then associating your own self worth and abilities to the results you achieve (or not) is a sure fire recipe for stress.

When I made this point to the group, many agreed this was a familiar pattern with their First Aiders and Champions. 

POINT NUMBER FOUR – conditions for success.

Certain conditions need to be in place to give any form of coaching the maximum opportunities for success.

These are some of the basic fundamentals 101 of excellent coaching. 

These include:

1) Be clear of the rules for the coaching sessions and ensure clients accept these rules before commencing and testing their acceptance, test, test, test. These include setting up a safe space of confidentiality, establishing trust and honesty, ensuring accountability, and responsibility.

2) Being willing to listen to learn, enabling the coach to establish the cause of the problem and desired outcomes by asking specific questions, without imposing their map of the world onto their clients.

3) Being able to avoid being drawn into the content of the clients presenting issues. Getting absorbed into the story is a recipe for compassion fatigue.

 4) Learning to observe the process of how clients do what they do, so they can be coached to stop doing what's not working and learn what to do instead.

5) Being confident about your competency. Confidence comes with practice and lots of it. This is essential for the coach and client who needs to be able to trust the skills and experience of the coach.

6) Having a compassionate indifference to the outcomes of the sessions, knowing that you are present in the sessions and have given 100% in the name of service.

7) Perhaps the most important thing anyone can learn is how to master managing their own emotional state. If this was made an essential part of any training then not only would we have First Aiders and Champions who were experiencing wellbeing they would be congruently able to coach and train others.

And this list is just a start!

Show most First Aiders and Champions the above list, and many will stop breathing. They are some of the basic approaches to excellent coaching, which most are oblivious to.

What I have just shared is an abbreviated answer to the questions asked: “have you experienced this with other companies, what were the causes, and what can be done about it?”

I guess a shorter answer could have been 

“Yes, incomplete training and lots, that is if you are willing to invest in your people properly.” 

We have a long way to go to eradicate workplace stress. Mental Health First Aiders and Champions initiatives are a welcome step in the right direction. However, perhaps the next giant leap would be to ensure that the people in the front line are adequately trained to look after themselves first. After all, when the oxygen mask descends you place yours on first before assisting others, do you not?


bottom of page