Work-related stress

Work-related stress and how to tackle it

Employers have a legal duty to protect employees from stress at work by doing a risk assessment and acting on it. Work related stress is now the leading cause of sickness absence in the UK, musculoskeletal used to be the big one, but that was when we were kind of a manufacturing country but now we're a service knowledge-based economy primarily, and there it's all about people issues so stress is a really major cause.


What is stress?

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE),  defines stress as ‘the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them’.

Employees feel stress when they can’t cope with pressures and other issues. Employers should match demands to employees’ skills and knowledge. For example, employees can get stressed if they feel they don’t have the skills or time to meet tight deadlines. Providing planning, training and support can reduce pressure and bring stress levels down.

Stress affects people differently – what stresses one person may not affect another. Factors like skills and experience, age or disability may all affect whether an employee can cope.

There are six main areas of work design which can effect stress levels. You should manage these properly. They are:

  • demands
  • control
  • support
  • relationships
  • role
  • change

Employers should assess the risks in these areas to manage stress in the workplace.

Signs of stress

Stress is not an illness but it can make you ill. Recognising the signs of stress will help employers to take steps to stop, lower and manage stress in their workplace.

Stress risk assessment

Employers have a legal duty to protect employees from stress at work by doing a risk assessment and acting on it.

If you have fewer than five employees you don’t have to write anything down. But it is useful to do this, so you can review it later, for example if something changes. If you have five or more employees, you are required by law to write the risk assessment down.

Any paperwork you produce should help you communicate and manage the risks in your business. For most people this does not need to be a big exercise – just note the main points about the significant risks and what you decided.

How to help

The earlier a problem is tackled the less impact it will have. If you think that an employee is having problems, encourage them to talk to someone, whether it’s their line manager, trade union representative, GP or their occupational health team.

Help for line managers to have simple, practical conversations with employees which can help prevent stress.

To protect employees from stress at work, employers should assess risks to their health. These example stress risk assessments may help.

You may need to develop individual action plans for employees suffering from stress. HSE’s Management Standards may also help you to identify and manage the six causes of stress at work.

Well, stress is now the leading cause of sickness absence in the UK, musculoskeletal used to be the big one, but that was when we were kind of a manufacturing country but now we’re a service knowledge-based economy primarily, and there it’s all about people issues so stress is a really major cause.

Even musculoskeletal diseases like backache to some extent have a stress factor in it because people can, if they’re stressed and job dissatisfied, what they can do is they can go to the occupational health and say, “Oh my back is really bad.

” It’s easier to say that than to say, “I’m suffering from depression.” So a lot of the musculoskeletal has a stress link to it. It’s a big problem for us.

Workplace stress is becoming increasingly common but it's something many of us often keep quiet or don't know what to do about or even where to turn for help. What you might not know is that your employer is legally required to help you if work stress has become an issue in your life.

An employer has a duty of care to their employees to ensure that there is a safe working environment and that includes in relation to minimising the risk of stress and stress-related illnesses. There are a lot of things that employers can do to try and manage stress in the workplace. One of the first things they might want to do is to conduct a stress audit to find out what is causing employees stress and they could even do that on an anonymous basis so that employees feel free, to be frank in their answers.

It's also important then to look at things like patterns of sickness absence and return to work interviews can be very helpful for trying to find out what the underlying cause of absence may be because we know that employees don't always report stress as the reason that they're out sick.

Employers should have a stress policy that makes it very clear to employees that they should raise concerns if they're stressed and how to do so. So that, really, there is a culture of being open about this kind of issue and it is communicated to everybody.

Crucially, then training managers to identify situations that cause stress and can give rise to stress and what the symptoms of stress in their employees are so that they can help to manage that too. Workers and employees have a right to take time off when they're sick and that can include if they are sick by reason of stress, but it's really more about what can an employee do when they're in this situation in order to raise concerns with their employer.

I would say in that scenario it's important to raise your concerns early rather than suffer in silence because what I've seen in my work is a lot of employees who struggle on in difficult circumstances and it gets to the point where they're at the breakdown or they're diagnosed with a serious depressive illness.

It's important to speak out, whatever is happening and to try and raise your concerns often informally at an early stage. So, you can speak to your line manager if the line manager doesn't want to take action or is the cause the problem, perhaps, then do speak to HR, talk to your union rep or other employee rep. You can seek advice from the Citizens Advice Bureau, or indeed ACAS, or you can seek specialist legal advice from an employment lawyer.

We know that workers in the UK do some of the longest working hours across Europe. Stress does seem to be a particular issue in this workplace culture.

There are other countries where, for example, an employee can call in sick and say they're having a Mental Health Day and that's recognised and it's taken seriously because it's recognised by an employer that being open about your concerns and sometimes just taking some time out is going to be more beneficial to an employee and, therefore, to the employer, its morale and productivity than soldiering on in a difficult situation.

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