Treating the symptoms AND the cause?


I never thought I’d be asked to follow David Ulrich in any way shape of form, so when timing meant it was over to me to contribute a ‘LoveyourHR’ blog, I felt the pressure…. but only for a moment.  Having re-read the offerings of the renowned HR ‘guru’, I realised I didn’t have to try and compete and that I could treat the symptom i.e. my anxiety of inadequacy in espousing HRM theory, by removing the cause.  So, instead, I decided to ‘go human’ and talk about things that touch real lives in very tangible ways.

Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of political reporting is the incessant unwillingness of politicians (of all parties) to answer the question they have been asked, occasionally to the point of making themselves look stupid in the process.  Over recent years I have noticed that the institutionalisation of ‘spin’ has reached new levels where when hearing the newsreader start a sentence with “a government spokesperson said….” my ears prick up for the latest ‘one line’ response, quoting (whichever) irrelevant or random statistic(s) that singularly fail to deal with the heart of the issue under discussion.

The recent news feature that prompted my ire concerned a press release issued from the police federation conference which identified that cases of police officers and staff taking long term sick leave for psychological reasons had risen by 35% over the last five years.  According to the federation, this was due to “unprecedented cuts to police officer numbers while demand on forces had not decreased” and was not surprising as officers often worked in highly stressful fast-moving environments, which coupled with a reduction in resources and manpower, “can lead to the perfect storm”.

The government’s response….  recognised “policing was stressful and forces must help staff” and pointed out that £10m had been allocated in 2014 to help emergency services staff through “mental health, physical recuperation and bereavement support”.  I wondered is this a classic case of making a virtue of treating the symptom rather than addressing the cause?  I had a leaking tap in the bathroom the other day, when asked by my wife what action I had taken, I’m not sure what the response would have been had I said, I’d bought three extra buckets and got all the towels out the airing cupboard.

Everyone knows that common sense suggests the best way to address any symptoms is to fix the root cause.  Of course, it’s not that simple.  In the medical world, the etiological home of symptoms, for many common and chronic illnesses the cause remains undiagnosed or presently beyond remedy and the only solution is to address the consequences through mitigation or safe removal.  Does that apply to unacceptable levels of stress across the public service?

Bringing the debate back to local government, I mused whether the concept of ‘demand management’ was a good example of treating the cause and not the symptom and then decided that whilst I didn’t have time in this blog (nor the level of detailed understanding and intelligence) to express a valid opinion, taking action to prioritise and prevent problem does at least seem like an attempt to release pressure on the ‘system’ and the people having to respond on the system’s behalf.  I’ve also been watching the excellent BBC documentary series about the Ambulance Service, from which it is evident there are many circumstances where the demand simply can’t be ignored and the inadequacy of available resources and indirect impact of the lack of capacity of the wider public services to treat the symptoms, let alone the cause, the impact becomes very visible and real on both patients and the staff.

So, in the shadows of continuing austerity, how far does the duty of care towards employees stretch for the employer?  When does the balance between keeping essential services and sustaining reasonable expectations on employees tilt over a line?  I have no doubt that at the front line of local government, very difficult decisions over service priorities are being taken every day, by individuals, managers and elected members and yes, it all comes down to money.  In that context, irrespective of whether the ‘busting’ of the public sector pay cap forces local government to find a place somewhere between 1% and CPI/RPI, unless essential public services are better funded, the outcome will remain negative for everyone concerned.

Surely, success in dealing with the impact of stress upon workers across the public service can only be achieved by treating the symptoms AND the cause.  The mental health and wellbeing focus of the Combined Authority, including working with employers to recognise and respond to workplace stress is very welcomed and here at WME we’re keen to help however we can, but somehow, the sector as a whole has to be sure it is doing more than just investing in another bucket?

Article by Colin Williams – Director, West Midlands Employers 

(find out more about Colin) 

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