Stress can place 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 factors that can cause work-related stress is key to managing people effectively. Employers should conduct stress 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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What is work-related 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 can become stressed when they feel they don’t have the resources they need (whether material, financial or emotional) to cope with these demands.
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 higher sickness absence, lower staff engagement and reduced productivity. Over 11 million working days are lost a year because of stress at work. Employers need to meet the challenge by dealing with excessive and long-term causes of stress.
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 2019 Health and well-being at work report, in partnership with Simplyhealth, found that stress-related absence continues to increase among UK employees, with stress a main cause of both short- and long-term absence from work. Furthermore, nearly three-fifths of organisations reported an increase in the number of reported common mental health conditions, such as anxiety and depression. Positively, more employers are recognising stress as an issue, with 71% now taking steps to tackle stress within their organisations. However, fewer than half of these organisations think their efforts are effective.
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, and/or continues for an extended period of time, it can lose its beneficial effect and become harmful to health. It’s also important to remember that every individual is different and their experience of pressure, and when that can tip into stress, will vary.
According to our 2019 Health and well-being survey, the main causes of employee stress include:
- workloads/volume of work
- management style
- relationships at work
- non-work factors - relationship or family issues
- considerable organisational issues or restructuring
- pressure to meet targets or deadlines
- non-work factors – personal illness or health issues.
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, but the important point to remember is being alert to changes in behaviour or performance in employees.
- declining/inconsistent performance
- uncharacteristic errors
- loss of motivation/commitment
- lapses in memory
- increased time at work
- lack of holiday planning/usage
Conflict and emotional signs
- undue sensitivity
- over-reaction to problems
- personality clashes
- arriving late to work
- leaving early
- reduced social contacts
- malicious gossip
- criticism of others
- bullying or harassment
- temper outbursts
- difficulty relaxing
- increased consumption of alcohol
- increased smoking
- lack of interest in appearance/hygiene
- accidents at home or work
- nervous stumbling speech
- upset stomach/flatulence
- tension headaches
- rapid weight gain or loss
The legal position
Under UK health and safety legislation and common law, employers have a duty to take care of employees. The Health and Safety Executive says that employers have a legal duty to protect employees from stress at work by doing a risk assessment and acting on it.
There is no one statute specifically covering the issue of workplace stress: a number of laws are relevant, and much of the law governing stress has evolved from case law rather than legislation. It’s important for employers to keep up to date with the implications of recent cases as the law in this area is continually evolving. CIPD members find out more in our Stress law Q&As.
Dealing with stress at work
The UK Health and Safety Executive (HSE)’s Management Standards provide guidance for employers on how to identify and manage the causes of work-related stress. The HSE lists six main areas of work design which can affect stress levels, which need to be managed properly. They are:
- Demands: for example, workload and the working environment.
- Control: for example. how much say someone has over their job.
- Support: for example, level of supervision and resources available to do the job.
- Relationships: for example. promoting positive working to help prevent conflict.
- Role: for example, making sure people understand their role and how it fits in the organisation.
- Change: for example, how organisational change is managed and communicated.
Developing an organisational framework
There are four main approaches that organisations can take to address stress at work as part of a holistic framework. These can be used together as a single initiative or 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 can 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 level of individual employees. Individuals are provided with education and support 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, and 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 help prevent workplace stress:
- Carry out a stress audit, and then allocate resources to reduce or eliminate the sources of stress.
- Give people adequate training and support 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 counselling schemes, and how to access them.
Spotting and addressing early signs of an issue can prevent it escalating. If employees raise an issue and managers are confident and capable of taking action, then early intervention is preferable. Although line managers should hopefully be able to spot the early signs of stress and 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.
The HSE has produced a new resource, the Talking Toolkit, to help managers start a conversation with their employees in identifying stressors (risks) to help manage and prevent work-related stress.
Employers often invest in:
- Developing the people management skills and confidence of managers so they can have sensitive conversations with staff.
- Developing a supportive work culture to encourage staff to discuss and seek support when experiencing stress.
- Providing, and signposting to, sources of support, for example a counselling service, employee assistance programme and charities.
The role of line managers
Line managers have a crucial role to play in preventing and dealing with workplace stress. While employers increasingly expect line managers to look after people’s health and well-being, often employers don’t provide the necessary training and support. For example, our Health and well-being survey 2019 found that just half of organisations train managers to manage stress.
A line manager is in the best place to understand the demands on a team member, as well as their personal needs and circumstances; they are therefore in a unique position to identify and deal with potential triggers for stress. They are also very likely to be the first port of call if a team member is feeling stressed and needs support. Our top tips to support managers to minimise stress in their teams outlines four simple steps:
- Get to know your team better.
- Lead by example to promote healthy working habits.
- Review job design and workloads.
- Assess your management style.
Should organisations have a stress policy?
While many organisations have developed stress policies, others have found that a wider well-being policy is more effective as it aims to optimise the overall well-being of their employees - see our Well-being at work factsheet. This approach is in line with that taken by the World Health Organization.
Whether organisations choose a 'well-being' or 'stress' policy, 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.
COOPER, C. and HESKETH, I. (2019) Wellbeing at work: how to design, implement and evaluate an effective strategy. London: CIPD and Kogan Page.
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.
CLARK, P. (2019) It’s time to rethink stress management. People Management (online). 23 August.
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.
MAKOFF-CLARK, A. (2018) Work-related stress jumps by a quarter to reach ‘epidemic’ levels. People Management (online). 1 November.
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 Rachel Suff.
Rachel Suff: Senior Employee Relations Adviser
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