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Dear Comrade: I am super stressed. How do I move my boss beyond tea and sympathy?

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Dear Comrade is Megaphone's advice column, where union members and officials respond to your questions about work, activism, and the world. Submit your question here.

Dear Comrade,

Last week HR made us sit through a seminar about dealing with stress. Normally I’d laugh it off as stupid corporate nonsense, and focus on the joys of a free afternoon tea. But this seminar made me really angry. I actually have been feeling really stressed at work lately, and I haven’t been sleeping properly. So to be told that we just needed to be more mindful and resilient felt pretty insulting. They were basically blaming us for our stress, instead of looking at what’s stressing us out in the first place… which, in my case, is my manager.  

She is always pushing me to work faster than is possible, but often doesn’t give me all the information I need to do the work. She’s also got a bit of a temper. Everyone else at work seems to be having the same problems but the others just accept it’s part of the job. I’m beginning to wonder if it’s just me. It is a high-pressure job, so I get that, but there are definitely concrete ways management could improve our stress levels - aside from telling us to do bloody exercise on our lunch breaks (which none of us have time to take anyway). 

Sincerely, 

Stressica Simpson


Dear Stressica,

I'm really sorry to hear that you’re having such a tough time. Not being given enough time or resources to complete your job, and being on the receiving end of poor communication from your manager - that definitely sounds like stress hazards in your workplace. And if you're having trouble sleeping, that's taking a toll on your health.

The first thing you should do is speak to your Health and Safety Representative (HSR). (If you don’t have one, you should consider electing one.) They have the legal right to monitor hazards like stress, and work with your employer to fix the problem. You and your HSR can distribute this handy survey to your colleagues, to help you identify which types of psychological hazards are affecting people. I know you mentioned your colleagues seem to be shrugging it off - but they might be privately struggling just like you are. 

Your union delegate or organiser should also be able to help you in these conversations with colleagues. If there is a culture of “toughen up” or “it’s just part of the job” at your workplace, it might be worth having a union meeting to remind folks that they have the power to affect change in their workplace!

Bottom line: psychological hazards are harder to point to than physical ones, but they’re no less real. And just like physical hazards, your employer has a duty under the OH&S Act to manage these risks - whether they’re experienced by you, a handful of people, or everyone. That might involve changing up workloads, rostering, procedures, leave arrangements or improving the physical working environment.

Here’s an example of what some of those changes might look like. Your boss asks you to write a $150K grant application by lunchtime... but he keeps changing his mind about the costings, expects you to source letters of support, wants you to write it up at your desk in a noisy open-plan office and he still makes you attend your regular morning workgroup meeting. So in that scenario, take an equation of insufficient resources (too little time, not enough info) and an inappropriate working environment. Bung in a high-stakes outcome (lots of money on the line) and unsurprisingly, your stress is probably sky-rocketing thanks to these avoidable psychological hazards. 

Imagine if your boss had given you the final costings you needed, a little extra time, a quiet workspace and relieved you of your other tasks temporarily - different story, right? Even if just a few of those hazards had been removed, chances are you may still have felt some pressure to deliver, but you may not have felt stress, and lost sleep over it.

So Stressica - reach out to your HSR and your colleagues, work together to support each other and identify where these hazards are, and know that your boss has a legal duty of care - literally. That care has to extend to your psychological wellbeing as well as to your physical safety. Making you sit through a seminar on mindfulness - and trying to shift the blame onto your coping mechanisms rather than the root causes of the stress - will not cut it (regardless of how delicious the pastries are). 

Last week HR made us sit through a seminar about dealing with stress. Normally I’d laugh it off as stupid corporate nonsense, and focus on the joys of a free afternoon tea. But this seminar made me really angry. I actually have been feeling really stressed at work lately, and I haven’t been sleeping properly. So to be told that we just needed to be more mindful and resilient felt pretty insulting.

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