Stress places immense demands on employees' physical and mental health and well-being, impacting their behaviour, performance and relationships with colleagues. It's a major cause of long-term absence from work, and knowing how to manage the many different signs of stress is key to managing people effectively. Employers should conduct risk assessments and manage workplace activities to reduce the likelihood of stress developing.
This factsheet defines stress and draws the distinction between stress and pressure. It offers information on UK employers' duties under health and safety law and concludes with guidance on how to deal with stress at work, providing information on prevention, early intervention and stress policies.
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Good people management is the starting point for effective prevention of stress. We believe that people work more effectively within a participative management style. Workers are better motivated when work satisfies economic, social and psychological needs. Employers should pay attention to job design and work organisation. If all managers are equipped with people management skills, this will better support employee engagement and well-being.
Organisations should focus on proactive reduction of common stressors and increasing staff resilience, as well as on helping employees who are experiencing stress. Where possible, reasonable adjustments should be made to help people stay in work, or make an effective return to work after a period of absence.
Stress in an employee’s personal life, for example due to financial worries, loss of a loved one or a change in their circumstances, can of course have an effect on performance at work. Many workplace initiatives can help people to manage stress, whatever the cause. Ultimately, building employee resilience and supporting staff experiencing stress can help retain a talented person and enable them to perform at their best in the long-term.
What is work-related stress?
It’s well recognised that excessive or sustained work pressure can lead to stress. Occupational stress poses a risk to most businesses and can result in compensation claims. Employers need to meet the challenge by dealing with excessive and long-term causes of stress.
The UK Health and Safety Executive (HSE) definition of work-related stress is: ‘The adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them at work.’ People become stressed when they feel they don’t have the resources they need (whether material, financial or emotional) to cope with these demands.
If people feel under too much stress and for too long, mental and physical illness may develop. Acas' advice says ‘Stress can affect people mentally in the form of anxiety and depression, and physically in the form of heart disease, back pain and alcohol and drug dependency’. Find out more about workplace mental health.
Our Employee Outlook regularly reports on employees’ views on stress at work: the Spring 2017 report produced in partnership with Halogen Software found that stress is still on the rise for UK employees, with almost a fifth saying that work makes them feel stressed. Our Absence management surveys also show that stress is a major cause of long-term sickness absence from work and reveal what employers are doing to lessen and manage stress at work.
Pressure and stress
There is sometimes confusion between the terms pressure and stress. It’s healthy and essential that people experience challenges within their lives that cause levels of pressure, for example the need to make decisions quickly when faced with a dangerous situation. And up to a certain point, an increase in pressure can improve performance, such as feeling motivated to meet a deadline. However, if pressure becomes excessive, it loses its beneficial effect and becomes harmful and destructive to health.
According to our latest Absence management survey, the main causes of stress at work include: excessive workload, non-work-related relationship or family issues, lack of managerial support and management style (for example a bullying or poorly trained line manager), poor working relationships or a large amount of change or restructuring.
Signs of stress
The first signs that indicate employees may be suffering from excessive pressure or stress are changes in behaviour or performance. The kinds of change that may occur are listed below.
- declining/inconsistent performance
- uncharacteristic errors
- loss of control over work
- loss of motivation/commitment
- lapses in memory
- increased time at work
- lack of holiday planning/usage
- undue sensitivity
- over-reaction to problems
- personality clashes
- immature behaviour
- arriving late to work
- leaving early
- extended lunches
- resigned attitude
- reduced social contact
- malicious gossip
- criticism of others
- bullying or harassment
- poor employee relations
- temper outbursts
- out-of-character behaviour
- difficulty relaxing
- increased consumption of alcohol
- increased smoking
- lack of interest in appearance/hygiene
- accidents at home or work
- reckless driving
- unnecessary risk-taking
- nervous stumbling speech
- upset stomach/flatulence
- tension headaches
- hand tremor
- rapid weight gain or loss
- constantly feeling cold
The HSE’s stress management standards provide guidance for employers on how to identify and manage the causes of work-related stress.
The legal position
Under UK health and safety legislation and common law, employers have a duty to take care of employees. This includes carrying out risk assessments and managing activities to reduce the incidence of stress at work.
There are three main types of legal duties which employees could use as a basis for a stress claim:
- express or implied terms in the contract of employment (for example the implied duties regarding health and safety and mutual trust and confidence)
- statute, including various pieces of health and safety, and discrimination, legislation.
There is no one statute specifically covering the issue of workplace stress: a selection of laws are relevant but much of the law governing stress has evolved from case law rather than legislation. It is important for employers to keep up to date with the implications of recent cases as the law in this area is continuously evolving. CIPD members find out more in our Stress law Q&As.
Disability discrimination provisions in the Equality Act 2010 include certain persistent mental illnesses. So ‘anxiety’, ‘stress’ and ’depression’ may be sufficient to qualify a person as disabled as long as there is a substantial and long-term effect (for at least a year) on their ability to carry out normal day-to-day duties. Mental impairments do not need to be clinically well-recognised in order to qualify as a disability.
If an employee is disabled, their organisation has a responsibility to make reasonable adjustments to accommodate their needs. Find out more about disability in the workplace in our factsheet.
Dealing with stress at work
There are four main approaches that organisations can take to address stress at work. These can be used together as a single initiative or may be adopted individually in a step-by-step well-being programme.
Policy, procedures and systems audit: requires the organisation to audit its policies, procedures and systems to ensure that it provides a working environment that protects the well-being of the workforce and is able to identify troubled employees and provide them with an appropriate level of support.
Problem-centred approach: provides a problem-solving model for dealing with stress and other psycho-social issues. It takes issues that arise within the workplace and identifies why they have occurred and then finds ways to solve them. The identification process may involve carrying out a risk assessment, examining sickness absence levels, employee feedback, claims for compensation and performance deficits.
Well-being approach: takes the view that the aim is to maximise employee well-being. Although it uses similar tools to those used by the problem-centred approach it is much more proactive in identifying ways to create a healthy workforce.
Employee-centred approach: works at the individual level of the employee. Individuals are provided with education and support in order to help them deal with the problems they face in the workplace. The employee-centred approach focuses on employee counselling and stress management training.
Ideally employers should approach stress management proactively, focusing on prevention and early intervention, not just responding when a problem becomes significant or when someone goes on sick leave.
Many organisations are trying to both reduce the main causes of stress in their organisation and increase employees’ resilience to deal with pressures.
To reduce workplace stress:
- Do a stress audit and subsequently direct resources to reduce or eliminate the sources of stress.
- Ensure people feel adequately trained and supported to do their jobs well.
- Increase support for staff during periods of change and uncertainty.
- Stress management and relaxation techniques training.
- Training aimed at building personal resilience (such as coping techniques, cognitive behaviour therapy, positive psychology courses).
- Regular activities promoting healthy behaviour and exercise.
- Flexible working options and improved work-life balance.
- Reminding employees of available help, including personal counselling schemes, and how to access them.
Spotting and addressing early signs of an issue can prevent it escalating. If employees feel able to flag a problem and managers are confident and capable of taking action then early intervention may be possible. Although line managers are responsible for spotting the signs of early mental health issues in their team members, employers should ensure there is someone who takes responsibility for line manages’ mental health and well-being too, because this can be overlooked.
Employers often invest in:
- Developing the people management skills and confidence of managers at all levels so they can have appropriate conversations with staff.
- Line managers knowing the teams and people’s usual working styles can enable them to spot behaviour which may be an early warning sign of a potential issue.
- Developing a supportive work culture to encourage staff to discuss and seek support when experiencing stress.
- Providing, and signposting to, support mechanisms, for example a counselling service, employee assistance programme or charities.
Should organisations have a stress policy?
While many organisations have developed stress policies, others have found that a wider well-being policy is much more effective in maximising the well-being of their employees rather than merely reduce their level of stress - see our factsheet on well-being at work. This approach is in line with that taken by the World Health Organisation. Whether organisations choose a 'well-being' or 'stress' policy, the elements that should be contained in the policy are very similar.
The policy should:
- begin with a clear statement which shows that the organisation is committed to developing a working environment that promotes the health and well-being of the organisation and its employees
- be supported by senior management
- be kept under constant review together with other policies, procedures and initiatives to ensure that they maximise employee well-being
- provide for identification of and a regular review of the key well-being indicators
- ensure the provision of effective advice, support, counselling and training to enhance employee well-being
- incorporate the process for evaluating the effectiveness of all well-being initiatives.
Useful contacts and further reading
Books and reports
CLARIDGE, B. and COOPER, C. (2014) Stress in the spotlight: managing and coping with stress in the workplace. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
HARVARD BUSINESS REVIEW. (2014) HBR guide to managing stress at work: renew your energy, lighten the load, strike a better balance. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press.
ROBERTSON, I.T. and COOPER, C.L. (2008) Stress. CIPD toolkit. London: Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development.
Visit the CIPD and Kogan Page Bookshop to see all our priced publications currently in print.
Dismissing employees with work-related stress. (2015) IDS Employment Law Brief HR. No 1018, April. pp11-19.
KAPADI, H. (2018) What employers can do to minimise stress at work. People Management online. 15 August
MACKIE, J. (2018) Can stress be a disability?People Management online. 10 April.
ROBERTSON, I. (2017) Evaluating the success of stress interventions. Occupational Health & Wellbeing. Vol 69, No 3, March. pp14-15.
CIPD members can use our online journals to find articles from over 300 journal titles relevant to HR.
Members and People Management subscribers can see articles on the People Management website.
This factsheet was last updated by Lisa Ayling, solicitor and employment law specialist, and by Ben Wilmott.
Ben Willmott: Head of Public Policy
Ben leads the CIPD’s Public Policy team, which works to inform and shape debate, government policy and legislation in order to enable higher performance at work and better pathways into work for those seeking employment. His particular research and policy areas of interest include employment relations, employee engagement and well-being, absence and stress management, and leadership and management capability.
Ben joined the CIPD in 2003. He started his career in regional journalism and prior to joining the CIPD was news editor and employment law editor at Personnel Today magazine. He has an LLM in Employment law from Kingston University.
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