Work-related stress: lifting the pressure at work

In this episode of the Acas Podcast, we explore why it's important for employers to recognise and take steps to reduce work-related stress.

We're joined by:

  • Rob McGreal, policy lead for work-related stress and mental health at the Health and Safety Executive (HSE)
  • Francoise Woolley, Acas head of mental health and wellbeing

We discuss how organisations should:

  • manage work-related stress
  • be aware of the legal implications
  • support mental health and wellbeing at work

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Chau Doan: Welcome to the Acas podcast. I'm Chau Doan and in this episode we will be talking about work-related stress and how employers and organisations can help and support with mental health and wellbeing at work. Joining me today in this episode is Rob McGreal, policy lead for work-related stress and mental health at HSE, and Francoise Woolley, head of mental health and wellbeing at Acas. Thank you both for joining me today.  

Francoise Woolley: Thanks Chau. Thanks for having us.

Rob McGreal: Yes, thanks for having us Chau.

Chau: So, I'd like to start with, I know stress is something that we all experience in a day to day life aspect. And I saw a recent HSE report that showed that around 822,000 workers suffered from work-related stress, depression or anxiety in 2020 and 2021. So then can I ask you Rob, what is work-related stress? And what are the common signs and symptoms to look out for?

Rob: To be honest, at HSE we define stress rather than work-related stress. We define stress as the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures and other types of demands placed on them. The reason we don't define stress as work-related stress is that work-related is just one factor.

Stress as you said, can come from so many different factors. So yes, work can be a contributory factor. Financial difficulties can be a contributory factor. Bereavements or relationship issues or looking after sick and elderly relatives can be factors. Long commutes, job insecurity, they're all factors to add to stress and with stress being an accumulative problem.

The thing about our definition is that we kind of differentiate stress from pressure. Pressure is quite good for us. You know what it's like, you've got a job and you've got a target to meet, you'll meet that target more clearly than if you've got a thing that says, well, it's got to be done by the end of the week, you find by the time you get to the end of the week, you haven't done it, because all the other pressures have got in the way. So it then becomes another pressure to you. But stress is when the pressures build up and you don't get a chance to recover.

With regards to the kind of problems it can cause, stress is an unusual thing, you know in that it's not a condition in itself. But stress is identifiable in how people behave. So you'll notice, for example, it’s usually broken down into 3 different types of symptoms. So you've got emotional, mental functions and behavioural.

So the emotional side of it is you start seeing people having increased emotional reactions. So they might be tearful, they might be more sensitive to criticism, they might be more negative in their outlook. They could actually be more aggressive and more anti things. You can see them losing the motivation, the commitment and the confidence. So you give them a job that you know they can do, and they’re suddenly panicking about whether they can or they can't.

And then you've got the mental function. So you've got things like confusion and indecision. Not being able to concentrate properly, having difficulty remembering things so you've asked them to do something and they've forgotten all about it, not because of any malicious intent, but because it's genuinely gone out of their mind.

You can also get behavioural ones. So changes in eating habits is an example, so people not eating or overeating, eating more than they would normally. You can notice occasionally mood swings, so their behaviour changes. And you can also notice when they get a bit more twitchy or nervous.

And another sort of prime example of things that you will see, is people will change their attendance times and things. So you'll find people who were under pressure might get in earlier and stay later because they feel the need to do a specific job within a timescale. Or you might find the exact opposite. They might start taking more time off, they might start having niggly problems, so you might find them taking time off at short notice for things like upset stomachs, which is a prime example of the kind of symptoms that a person who was stressed would pick up.

Chau: That's really interesting that you mentioned about all these different symptoms, and potentially how it can be individual to each person as well. And I also noticed that you mentioned about pressure as well, in regards to that. So I think we all need a bit of pressure in our daily lives to do the things that need to get done. Because sometimes if you don't have any of that pressure, we won't get the work done.

But I was wondering as well, if that pressure got too much, as you mentioned, and then people got stressed and especially in a work capacity, then can I ask you, Francoise, how can an employer or manager support their staff with those stresses, especially for example, if they're a small business, which has limited resources, or they don't have certain things in place to help in that situation?

Francoise: Yeah, thanks, Chau. I think there's a couple of different things that they could do. So for example, managers, it's about really taking early action. So Rob talks there a lot about some of the behaviours you might see in the workplace. And they might not necessarily mean the person is stressed or suffering with their mental health. But actually, it's an indication that you need to, as a manager, have a chat and find out what might be underlying what's going on, especially if you notice, as Rob said, a change in someone's behaviour. So taking early actions, when you spot some of those signs, speaking to them in private and making sure that you allocate enough time.

Now in this kind of hybrid working world, it can be quite difficult. Ideally, if you can meet them face to face, I would say that is better. And explore the causes, you know, could it be that their workloads are so high, could it be that they're experiencing bullying at work, or they don't feel equipped or trained to do the role they do. So it's about having that conversation. It's an informal conversation, so you're not pulling them up on their performance, but you're trying to find out what might be underlying what you're seeing, and then working with that employee to explore support options to reduce stress.

And it may be that you don't have all the answers, and it may be that you need to go away and both of you have a think about that, or consult with HR or occupational health if appropriate. And that brings me on to the point around referring for further advice or support. So it might be referring to an employee assistance programme to support your member of staff further, in conjunction with other things that you put in the workplace.

But once you have agreed an action plan to support your member of staff, it's really about reviewing that and closely monitoring how it's working, because the situation might change and you might well need to adjust a few things.

So like I said, is it those kind of things like workload is too high, or perhaps there's a lack of support from managers, from colleagues. We know that one of the big risk factors for stress can be management style. So perhaps a manager is not equipped to support their member of staff, or has last minute requests, or is inconsistent, or treats that member of staff unfairly.

So it's really thinking about tackling those causes of stress, and how you do that is you speak to your staff, whether that's through employee surveys, or whether that's within your team, or through one to ones, and I know that HSE have lots of tools around assessing the risk of stress that could be really useful there as well.

They have things like a 'Talking Toolkit', which looks at all the different work-related stress factors, and a manager can use this with their member of staff to look at the different options and look at, you know, what is it that is causing stress in their staff member? And what are the particular solutions that could be put in place?

But I do think that I will always go back to it's not just about line managers. So our framework, the Acas framework for promoting positive mental health, we do look at the role of the employer. So as I said, tackling the causes of stress, and also the manager in being able to have those conversations and open up that communication, but then also the employee. There is also a role for them to manage their own stress as well.

Chau: You mentioned there about the Acas framework. So, I think within the framework it mentions to say that it's the employer, the manager and the employee who have a collective responsibility in regards to mental health and wellbeing at work. So do you think that if an employee felt that the employer wasn't really doing anything in relation to handling either stress in the workplace or mental health, that they should essentially try and take a more proactive stance in relation to that? Or potentially inform the employer if they felt that they had any concerns either within work-related stress or their mental health and wellbeing as well?

Francoise: I would always say, try and resolve it informally first and we always talk about that at Acas. So if you have a concern, the first port of call has to be to your manager, and using any kind of tools that you can, for example, the wellness action plan and the Talking Toolkit, as I mentioned before, I'm very keen on these tools, because I think it doesn't come naturally necessarily for managers or employees to talk about some of these issues.

So I do think that's the best way to do it informally first. But of course, you can go through other channels internally, if you feel like stressors are not being addressed, which can include things like grievances, but obviously try and do things informally first.

But I do think for employees to be able to come forward, it does come down to you know, what sort of culture do you have in your workplace? So, do you have a culture of psychological safety where employees can speak their mind about the concerns they're having, including stress? And I think leaders' behaviours are really key in this, you know, they set the tone. You know, whether they have an open door, whether they encourage feedback from employees and act on that feedback.

So I think really, how leaders speak about stress and value employee wellbeing is really important. I spoke to an organisation recently, and their directors are very vocal in terms of blogging and speaking about their own stresses and how they manage them and the importance of taking annual leave and how that's been useful for them.

Chau: That's a really interesting point that you also make there about having that psychological safety within the environment to talk about stress and anxiety in the workplace as well. And I think that's something that people probably overlook, in relation to that, because I know that sometimes we encourage people to speak about their mental health and wellbeing, but if they are potentially fearful of doing so or they felt that there are repercussions to speaking about that, then that might also put them off.

So then can I go back to regarding stress in the workplace as well, and potentially the legal requirements in managing work-related stress. Can I ask you Rob then, what essentially are those requirements that need to be put in place? So for example, do employees have to do things like risk assessments or potentially put reasonable adjustments in place, if the stress that is causing the employees potentially too much for them to bear?

Rob: The Health and Safety Work Act requires an employer to look after the health, safety and welfare of its employees at section 2 of the Act. Section 3 requires it to look after the health and safety of others that can be affected by the undertaking. But that's not so much relevant in the issues of work-related stress.

So there is a responsibility on an employer to protect the health of individuals, whether that's physical health or psychological health. So yes, there is a duty for them. How they meet that duty is under the management regs, they're required to do a risk assessment. The extent of that risk assessment is quite dependent on the size of the organisation.

The HSE have produced a tool called the management standards approach, which was designed with larger organisations in mind, but which can be used by smaller organisations. But the overall tool includes things like a stress indicator tool, which allows you to do a survey of all your employees. So every employer irrespective of size is required to do a risk assessment on all work-related risks. And stress is just another one of those work-related risks.

You wouldn't expect somebody to go into a construction site without PPE because you would do a risk assessment that says he needs to have a hardhat and you would give him a hardhat. Stress is the same. You wouldn't expect somebody to work under stresses that were unreasonable. You would have a look at them and see what those stressors are, what the causes of them are, and what can be done to alleviate them or remove them all together.

So the other duty that they have, that employers have, is that once they've done a risk assessment, if they identify any risk, they need to mitigate it or remove it as best they can. So you will identify risks in work-related stress, they might not be risks that are actually causing any major problem, but you can still mitigate them. So as Francoise was saying, conversations with your staff are the best way to get this, to find out what the problems are, and how they're impacting on the individuals.

So the thing about work-related stress is that it can also be subjective, in that what affects one person might have no effect at all on another one. So, issues like how long a person has been in the job, how well they know the job, how well they've been trained, how they got on with the line management, how they work with other colleagues. They'll all have an impact on how badly a hazard or a risk can affect you as an individual.

So it's not just about putting in place organisational approaches to removing risks. It's not just about putting in place training for managers and staff. It's also about removing stigma, it's also about looking at individuals and saying, well, that individual has got a particular problem, what can we do for that individual.

So for example, if somebody has a sick relative that they have to care for, it's in the interest of the employer to help that person be flexible, give them some sort of help in changing perhaps their work times or changing the workload or things that will alleviate the pressure from that on that person from the work perspective, so that they can do what they need to do at home and still be productive and in work.

If people get overly stressed with problems, both in work and outside work, they're not going to walk away from outside, what they're going to do is take time off sick from the workplace. So it's in the interest of an employer to actually look after these issues that are associated but not necessarily directly work-related.

Francoise: I just wanted to add to what Rob said really, just about another piece of legislation, the Equality Act 2010, so that there is an obligation from the employer to protect staff from discrimination, in this case, potentially disability. So if somebody has a physical or mental health impairment which has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on their ability to carry out normal day to day activities, then that would mean the employer is under obligation to put in place reasonable adjustments to support that employee and make sure that they are not unfairly disadvantaged.

So that could be, as we said, stress isn't a mental health condition, but it could lead to anxiety and depression, so it could come into play there. And when it talks about long term, it's usually around it's lasted for at least 12 months, or likely to last for at least 12 months or it could be something that is reoccurring, like depression for example.

So really important then, under this legal duty that employers look at what sort of adjustments they could put in place. Could they reassign some duties? Could they allow them to take unpaid or paid leave for appointments relating to their mental health? Could they offer homeworking and be flexible for part of the week, or assign a buddy or a mentor to support them?

But we always say in Acas, you know that that is the kind of legal minimum, but as Rob said, you know, it's in the interest of the employer. But also why wouldn't you? Why wouldn't you put things in place to support someone and look at adjustments if it would help them to be the best person they can be at work?

Chau: That's a really interesting point that you've put there, Francoise. And I think it's thinking about all the different things that employers could put into place to help and support their staff, as well. And it seems like that mental safety is equally as important as physical safety in the workplace, as well. And I was just wondering Rob when we're discussing about the legal requirements, if the employer doesn't do anything to address it at all, or if they are for example negligent to it, then what are the legal implications in regards to that as well then?

Rob: The legal implications can be quite draconian. The first thing people would do and we would expect them to have raised the issue within their own organisation and gone through all of the grievance processes and things. But people can bring cases to HSE to look at. And we do have the ability to prosecute for failure to do risk assessments, failure to act on the risk assessments. We can take up to prosecutions, and there are also several authorities that can take action.

So if people are struggling, the first thing I would say, as Francoise said before, take it up with the employer, with your line manager. If your line manager is part of the problem then take it up with a senior person or somebody of the equivalent grade to your line manager. But raise it and make people aware.

The other thing you can do, that most employees do, is take it to a trade union rep, who can work out whether it is work-related for them, but they can also look at the wider scope. So if one person is experiencing work-related stress, as I said before, because it's subjective and you get stress from all kinds of different places, their stress might be work-related in some regards, but the majority of it might be from outside sources, in which case it would be more difficult for a case to be taken. But a trade union rep would have an experience of how many other cases have been raised. So is this 1 of 10 rather than just being one individual suffering?

If people bring the case to HSE, as I say, we can take action, we can investigate the problem. We've done a lot of work fairly recently with SMEs as the smaller end of SMEs, so organisations up to about 50 employees, and it's quite clear that a lot of them didn't really understand that stress was a work-related issue. And that they have a duty to actually take some action.

But there will be some employers who will be saying, well, it's not work-related, we're not going to do anything about it. And at that point, people do have recourse to come to ourselves, or go to the trade union and see if they can get something, some action, or even go to an industrial tribunal and try to find out if they can get some action through that. Or do a civil case themselves.

Francoise: I just wanted to pick up on Rob's point around beyond reasonable doubt, so that's the threshold for HSE, but what we see is cases that go to employment tribunal, so they come through our conciliation service. So we do see things that come to employment tribunal where we conciliate to try and avoid, obviously employment tribunals are stressful and costly, all the rest of it, so we do what we can do to conciliate. So the sort of claims we have are things like constructive dismissal, which is based on where an employee has resigned because of the environment in which they are working in. So they would have to show a breach of contract to that actually the employer has not fulfilled their contract to provide a safe place to work.

Sometimes we will also see that unfair dismissal claim, if somebody has been dismissed because of their inability to manage stressors, if you like. But really where sometimes the employer has not paid due regard to, as Rob said, assessing and managing the risk of work-related stress in the workplace. So we see those sort of claims, as well as discrimination where people have not put in reasonable adjustments to support their employees.

Chau: That's a really interesting point that you mentioned there, Francoise, about the costs in relation to work-related stress as well. So you mentioned about taking claims to the employment tribunals. But also, when I was looking at the report from HSE, it mentioned that workplace stress to the economy is estimated to be around £5.2 billion each year. And the main factors of work-related stress potentially is the workload as such. So can I ask then you, Francoise, in relation to costs as well, why is it important to support positive mental health?

Francoise: So we know if you pay due regard to promoting positive mental health, to addressing stress in the workplace, employees they're happier, they're more engaged at work, they feel more fulfilled. And you know, work stresses are not spilling out into home life and impacting them there. They work better as a team, it can help with team morale.

So really, really important, and that aspect about retention of staff, I mean, research has shown that actually, you know, workers will seek a new job if their mental wellbeing is not supported by their employer, and that tends to be more so, actually, if you're a younger employee, so 18 to 24 year olds are more likely to leave and seek a job that is actually more supportive to their wellbeing.

So I think it does make you, as an organisation, more attractive to job seekers. More and more we are seeing that people are saying, you know, at job interviews, 'what are you doing for my wellbeing?' But the costs you mentioned there, I think obviously there are the financial costs. But as an employer, you know, it improves performance if staff are more engaged, are happier, more productive as an organisation, can reduce absence levels and the sort of cost of replacing staff. So, lots of things really of why it is so important to look at wellbeing and supporting and managing stress in the workplace.

Chau: I think that's a really interesting point is the case that employers should invest in to their staff's mental health and wellbeing so it pays off in regard to the culture, and also, essentially, in the workforce, they're more productive, and potentially a happier workforce as well. So can I ask you both then, going forwards, is there one main thing that you'd like our listeners to take from this podcast episode today?

Francoise: So I think one takeaway, really, is to think about your overall strategy for supporting positive mental health and tackling stress in the workplace. I mentioned it before, but our Acas framework really does look at that shared responsibility. So what as an employer can you do, what can managers do and what can individual staff members do? And I do use that internally with our own staff. So whenever we're introducing changes to the organisation, where we're thinking about supporting things like bereavement, those sorts of things, really just looking at that overall strategy, based on what works really, I think is so important.

Rob: So just a couple of things I would hope people would take away with them. Firstly, work-related stress is a hazard. There are risks that arise from it. But it's like any other hazard that can be tackled, it can be managed. And the sooner you get involved and the sooner you start tackling it, the better it will be for your staff and for the organisation. It might seem like it's too difficult to handle. But if you ignore it, it's not going to go away. It's going to develop, it's going to get worse.

So I would say for the employers, the one thing to take away is, don't panic, when it happens, it will happen. It can be managed. And the easiest way to manage it is to talk to your staff, talk to people, whether that's one to ones with people who are experiencing problems, whether that's team meetings to discuss it and raise the awareness of it, whether it's general communications that will remove the stigma around mental health issues, whether that's directors standing up and talking about the problems that they experienced and how they got around them. Whether that's getting people in to do talks around mental health first aid, or other kinds of wellbeing issues. Talking is one of the best things that you can do to help alleviate problems.

If people aren't experiencing problems, they will appreciate the fact that you asked. They will appreciate that you've talked to them, that you are showing concern. And you never know your conversation with an individual might be the thing that stops them from committing suicide, or stops them from falling out of work. Talk to people, it's the cheapest option and it's one of the best.

Chau: Thanks for that Francoise and Rob. And I think that's some really good points that you've mentioned there. I think from what I'm taking from it is about that awareness around mental health and wellbeing and awareness around stress in the workplace as well. And you mentioned about the training and support that people can access, but also potentially having that conversation, be open to discuss it and creating that safe environment for people to discuss it and not feel that there are any repercussions around that as well. So, again, I'd like to thank you both for joining me in the podcast today.

Francoise: Thanks very much Chau.

Rob: Thanks Chau. Thanks for the opportunity.

Chau: This has been the Acas Podcast. For more information on work-related stress and supporting mental health and wellbeing at work, visit our website at, including advice, guidance, resources and training. Further information is available in the episode notes. Thank you for listening.