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Dealing with stress in the workplace

According to the HSE (Health and Safety Executive), in 2015/16 over 480,000 people in the UK reported that work-related stress was making them ill. This amounts to nearly 40% of all work-related illness.

Yet many employees are reluctant to talk about stress at work. There is still a stigma attached to stress and people still think they will be seen as weak if they admit they are struggling. But stress is not a weakness, and can affect anyone at any level of an organisation.

It is therefore important that an employer takes steps to tackle the work-related causes of stress in its organisation and encourages staff to seek help at the earliest opportunity if they begin to experience stress.

What is stress?

Stress is defined as the 'adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them'. Most staff benefit from a certain amount of pressure in their work. It can keep them motivated and give a sense of ambition. However, when there is too much pressure placed on them, they can become overloaded. Stress can affect the health of staff, reduce their productivity and lead to performance issues.

Stress is not an illness, but the psychological impact can lead to conditions such as anxiety and depression. Stress, anxiety and depression can also increase the risk of conditions like heart disease, back pain, gastrointestinal illnesses or skin conditions.

What causes stress?

There can be a variety of causes of stress. For example, financial problems, difficulties in personal relationships or moving house can all cause stress. Work can also cause stress. The HSE (Health and Safety Executive) has identified the six primary causes of work-related stress to be:

  • The demands of the job - staff can become overloaded if they cannot cope with the amount of work or type of work they are asked to do
  • Amount of control over work - staff can feel disaffected and perform poorly if they have no say over how and when they do their work
  • Support from managers and colleagues - levels of sickness absence often rise if staff feel they cannot talk to managers about issues troubling them
  • Relationships at work - a failure to build relationships based on good behaviour and trust can lead to problems related to discipline, grievances and bullying
  • How a role fits within the organisation - staff will feel anxious about their work and the organisation if they don't know what is expected of them and/or understand how their work fits into the objectives of the organisation
  • Change and how it is managed - change needs to be managed effectively or it can lead to huge uncertainty and insecurity.

Why should employers try to reduce the causes of stress at work

Firstly, reducing work-related stress can be hugely beneficial to an employer:

  • Making staff healthier and happier at work
  • Improving performance and making staff more productive
  • Reducing absence levels
  • Reducing workplace disputes
  • Making the organisation more attractive to job seekers

Secondly, an employer has a legal obligation to ensure the health, safety and welfare of its employees. As part of this, an employer must conduct risk assessments for work-related stress and take actions to prevent staff from experiencing a stress-related illness because of their work.

For more information on how to conduct a risk assessment, go to www.hse.gov.uk/stress.

Taking steps to reduce work-related stress

If a risk assessment identifies areas where the organisation is performing poorly, an employer should work with its staff to agree realistic and practical ways to tackle it.

Any existing consultation and/or negotiating arrangements should be followed so that staff and/or their representatives can contribute their views.

An employer should then develop an action plan that includes:

  • what the problem is
  • how it was identified
  • the proposed solution/s
  • actions to be taken to achieve the solution/s
  • dates by which each action should be achieved
  • how staff will be kept informed on progress
  • a date to review the plan and see if it has achieved its aim.

Once solutions have been implemented, the review should check that agreed actions have been done and evaluate how effective these have been. The views of staff, and data collected on employee turnover, sickness absence and productivity, can help compare the organisation against how it was before the action plan was implemented.

An employer will then need to consider what, if any, further action is needed.

Spotting when staff may be experiencing stress

While identifying work-related risks and taking preventative measures should help minimise stress for most staff, it may still affect some team members due to issues inside or outside of the workplace. Managers should be prepared to help and support a team member experiencing stress.

Although training on stress can be very useful, a manager should not be expected to be an expert.

It is important to never make assumptions, but signs that a team member may be stressed include:

  • changes in the person's usual behaviour, mood or how they interact with colleagues
  • changes in the standard of their work or focus on tasks
  • appearing tired, anxious or withdrawn and reduced interest in tasks they previously enjoyed
  • changes in appetite and/or increase in smoking and drinking alcohol
  • an increase in sickness absences and/or turning up late to work.

Talking to a team member who may be experiencing stress

Where a manager thinks a team member may be experiencing stress, they should approach the matter in the same way set out in the guidance on Managing staff experiencing mental ill health. This is because without talking to the team member, it is impossible to know what is affecting them and therefore a consistent approach should be taken. 

Additionally, organisations should encourage staff to talk to their manager if they think they are becoming unwell. Creating a working environment that proactively supports staff who become unwell will make it easier for staff to tell their manager if they are experiencing stress.

For more information on how to do this, go to Promoting positive mental health in the workplace.

If a team member does approach their manager to advise they are experiencing stress, the manager should:

  • move the conversation to a private space, where they will not be disturbed (if not already somewhere appropriate)
  • thank the team member for coming to them and letting them know
  • be patient and allow them as much time as they need to talk about it
  • remain focused on what they say
  • be open minded
  • try to identify what the cause is
  • think about potential solutions.

If the cause of stress relates to their relationship with their manager, or other team members, it may be beneficial to involve Human Resources, if the organisation has one, or a more senior manager and allow the team member to have a companion (such as a work colleague or trade union representative) at any meetings.

Supporting a team member experiencing stress

Where it is possible to identify a work-related problem, a manager (in discussion with the team member) should consider what support or changes would rectify the situation. They could be temporary or permanent.

Usually small, simple changes to working arrangements or responsibilities will help ease pressures affecting the team member.

It may take a number of informal meetings with the team member to agree the best way forward. Some changes may also require authorisation from senior management, HR or the owner of the business. A manager should explain if they believe a potential change may require authorisation and when an answer should be received. If authorisation is refused, a manager should clearly explain the reasons why this was not practicable and try to find an alternative solution.

If changes are agreed and made, a manager should also agree with the team member what their work colleagues will be told.

Even if the cause of stress may not be work-related, changes to the team member's working arrangements may help reduce some of the pressure they are experiencing. For example, temporarily changing their working hours may reduce stress caused by caring responsibilities for an ill-relative.

Monitoring the situation

A manager should regularly check on how a team member experiencing stress is feeling and whether any changes in place are still needed and/or working as required. This could be through planned one-to-one meetings or through informal chats in the workplace.

Even once the team member is able to resume their normal working arrangements, their manager should continue to monitor their health and offer support where necessary.

Acas training and support

We can visit your organisation to help you understand what needs to be done to address a range of issues related to stress management and the identification of critical issues in your workplace and then work with you to develop practical solutions. Find out more from our Workshops, projects and business solutions page.

We also offer training courses to help managers in your organisation.

View course details and availability.