Carol McGrath

Booking in time to destress

When union learning rep Carol McGrath saw colleagues struggling with high levels of stress, she stepped in to help. We chat to Carol about how she’s been promoting health and wellbeing at Leeds City Council.

Carol, how big an issue was stress at the council?

Staff numbers have been reduced because of financial pressures. This means colleagues are doing more work and stress levels have risen. Stress is prevalent in all industries, and is not only detrimental to people’s health, but is a massive cost to businesses. Something had to be done, and the council acknowledged this.

What effect was stress having on colleagues?

A lot of people weren’t taking lunch breaks and spent far too many hours on their computers, contributing to stress. It’s important to recognise that high stress levels can cause physical symptoms such as aches and pains. As a rep, I support staff members who have been off sick, including those with stress related illnesses, to return to work and meet with their managers.

Where does the book group come into it?

I decided to set up some lunchtime activities to get people away from their desks. I asked colleagues about their hobbies, and many said they enjoy reading but couldn’t find the time. The idea was born from there: I applied for a Kick Start grant from UNISON to launch a reading group and lending library.

The group meets once a month to discuss a book they’ve all read and to choose a new one. We pick different genres (classics, history books, biographies and cultural themes) to push people’s literacy skills, rather than reading what we’re all comfortable with. We’ve also taken part in the Reading Ahead challenge, which challenges staff to read six books and rate and review them. The offshoot of the reading group is that staff members now have more in common as they have different things to speak about other than work. It gives people a lot of satisfaction.

And what about those people who aren’t readers?

We have a knitting group that meets regularly: it’s amazing to see people clicking away on their knitting needles on their lunch breaks, rather than sat at a computer.

You’ve been promoting health and wellbeing more broadly at the council. Tell us about this.

I’ve been running practical workshops for staff to help them manage stress both at work and home. Stress is not just specific to one department; it’s a common issue across the organisation. I’ve worked with staff across different teams and the council is supportive of the workshops. The union is also supporting me to develop new health and wellbeing workshops for staff: we’re exploring issues such as the impact of the menopause for women and work and the issue of low confidence in men.