“Stiff Upper lip” or lip quiver – what’s that got to do with workplace health?
In England (maybe elsewhere too) there is a saying 'stiff upper lip' - in that you see or feel something discomforting, unsettling or upsetting, and the best way to react is to stiffen your upper lip and stoically move on, rather than let your lip quiver as you become tearful and fragile. It is rife in British society and in our workplaces.
Working life in recent decades has risen in intensity. For instance if you googled to look at ‘stress at work’ you would find any number of headlines like these:
“The stress of working for the NHS is making healthcare workers ill and killing them, the King’s Fund has said.” Rimmer (2016)
“Michael West said that stress caused by an increasing workload and a lack of autonomy was deeply affecting NHS staff.” Rimmer (2016)
“Work related stress, depression and anxiety continue to represent a significant ill health condition in the workforce of Great Britain.” HSE
“Work related stress accounts for 37% of work related ill health and 45% of days lost, in 2015/16. The occupations and industries reporting the highest rates of work related stress remain consistently in the health and public sectors of the economy.” HSE
And these are just the cases of stress that we know about – it is possible that some people in workplaces do not take time off sick, or report ill health, or speak up about how stressed they are feeling. It may also be that some people are so familiar with feeling stressed that it has become ‘normal’ to be like this at work.
There are many factors to this – not all of which are work related. Any curve balls in life can cause us to feel stressed at work, health conditions can add to the pressure, feeling tired or exhausted can feel stressful in getting through the day and other societal atrocities or intensities can add to the melting pot. Added to which if we don’t look after ourselves week in, week out even down to simple physiological needs such as hydration, our body is going to start to feel stretched, overwrought and stressed.
Michael West says (Rimmer 2016) “what we know is that stress kills people. It causes heart disease, it causes relationships to break up, it causes poor immune functioning—it is a really clear killer in society.”
We could discuss here what we mean when we say the word ‘stress’ as it has become somewhat of an all encompassing word that could mean all manner of things. And, what stresses me may not be what stresses you. I may get stressed by deadlines, you may get stressed by having nothing to do at work and being bored, I may get stressed by noise at work, you may not. Our body’s response to what is going on around us can be quite unique to us all. Nonetheless, stress has become a widely used term in workplace health and hence it is a great example to use here.
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When we look broadly at stress causing factors at work there are any number for example:
“Reasons cited as causes of work related stress are also consistent over time with workload, lack of managerial support and organisational change as the primary causative factors” (HSE)
All of which are part of overall organizational health. All of which require a deeper consideration as to what it is that triggers stress in each of these circumstances.
One of the notable responses that workplaces have been making to stress and workplace health and wellbeing is to put in workplace health and wellbeing programmes – some of which include yoga, zumba, confidential counseling, improved nutritious food availability, ‘take a break’ campaigns. But as Michael West also states here, workplace health is multifactorial, requiring a ‘whole’ organizational approach:
“If workload, role clarity, bullying and harassment, and management structures are what are primarily causing people to suffer, then simply presenting leaders with a solution of health and wellbeing programmes is not only potentially insufficient, it would be really misleading to people in power [to think] that what they are doing is dealing with the problem.” Michael West (Rimmer 2016)
What then has all this got to do with a ‘stiff upper lip’?
What if part of the issue regarding employee and organisational health lie within a behavioural reaction to these stressful situations? And what if there was another way?
A way that could start to bring focus back to the need for honest, open, transparent, sensitive organisations which by their very nature dealt with issues as they arose, rather than them becoming stressors in the body and longer term issues?
What is a stiff upper lip?
Someone with a stiff upper lip approach in life tends not to show their feelings when they are upset, or distressed, they remain resolute and unemotional on the face of it. Of course they are not unemotional as whatever their reaction was to a situation it would be somewhere in their body, but, a stiff upper lip denies, buries, ignores, or overrides what was actually felt. And there are stories from different industries where a stiff upper lip is encouraged or the ‘normal’ way to behave in adversity, maintaining a ‘professional stance’ come what may. There are also stories of workers feeling fear for showing emotions in case they are bullied, taunted, or treated less equally e.g. for promotion.
We could say that a stiff upper lip is a form of repression – as we are subduing what we feel, or we quell our emotion, or, we feel due to the workplace culture a form of repression as we are expected to (even if it is never spoken it is a sense of the way things are done) hold back, ‘keep in check’ or hide our reactions/emotions. What then if part of the rise of stress at work, and decline of workplace health and wellbeing is in part due to a stiff upper lip, or any form of subduing what we feel? Or holding back expressing what we feel?
When it comes down to it a stiff upper lip approach to life is actually a hardening, a way of protecting ourselves from feeling hurt, from being vulnerable, from being seen as fragile, and it has a consequence.
This year, the Duke of Cambridge (The Guardian), stated that ‘keeping “a stiff upper lip” should not be at “the expense of your health”. Sally Austen a Consultant Clinical Psychologist (The Guardian) states “People who might be classed as emotionally ‘strong’ – the stiff upper lipped – are more likely to end up with depression or PTSD than those who recognise their need to express their feelings”. And what if in repressing our feelings, we also become less sensitive to those around us, more sanitized in our responses to colleagues, and people in life? What if a stiff upper lip, or holding back what we feel, is also a factor in mental health issues in our workplace and life? It is worth considering, particularly as “Mental health problems cost employers in the UK £30 billion a year through lost production, recruitment and absence” (ACAS).
That said, what if there is another way – one where we re-learnt to connect to our sensitivity, to honor our fragility, to learn to express how we feel, one where we discarded the ‘stiff upper lip’ and allowed a ‘lip quiver’?
For decades I have observed that while teams, and employees override their sensitivity and fragility, they have a tendency to become less ‘real’ – and this causes a lack of realness in their work too – a slight distancing from the people around them.
What I also observe is that those who do give a ‘lip quiver’ a go, and honor fragility, honesty, openness, not only impacts on their own health and wellbeing – particularly as they go home without bottled up emotions or feelings, it also gives them a more worldly sense of what is happening in society – and their ability to respond to situations in work and life is more natural and understanding.
At the end of the day Id far prefer to feel where I am at, and from this know how to honour and cherish myself, than to have a sense of bottled up feelings and emotions where I feel tense and anxious, and I don’t know which way to turn.
Why not give it a go and say no to the 'stiff upper lip'?
ACAS - http://www.acas.org.uk/index.aspx?articleid=1900 (accessed 30th August 2017)
HSE - http://www.hse.gov.uk/statistics/causdis/stress/stress.pdf (accessed 30th August 2017)
Rimmer, A. (2016) http://careers.bmj.com/careers/advice/Stress_of_working_for_NHS_is_killing_staff%2C_King%E2%80%99s_Fund_says (accessed 30th August 2017)
The Guardian - https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/apr/18/stiff-upper-lip-why-royal-health-warning-matters-prince-william-harry-mental-health (Accessed 30th August 2017)