Stress can place immense demands on employees' physical and mental health and affect 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 take a systematic approach to identifying the risks of stress, for example by conducting stress risk assessments.
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) defines work-related stress as: ‘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 physical, 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 businesses and can result in higher sickness absence, lower staff engagement and reduced productivity. According to the HSE, 17.9 million working days were lost to stress, anxiety or depression in 2019/20.
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 2022 Health and wellbeing at work survey report, in partnership with Simplyhealth, shows that stress continues to be one of the main causes of short and long-term absence. Overall, nearly four-fifths (79%) of respondents report some stress-related absence in their organisation over the last year, and this figure rises to 90% of large organisations (with more than 250 employees). Positively, more employers are recognising stress as an issue, and taking steps to tackle stress within their organisations. However, just over half (52%) of respondents in organisations that are taking steps to tackle stress believe that their organisation is effective at managing work-related stress
Employee assistance programmes, flexible working options/improved work-life balance and staff surveys or focus groups to identify causes remain the most common methods used to identify and reduce stress.
Many workplace initiatives can help people to manage stress, whatever the cause. Stress in an employee’s personal life, for example due to financial worries, or loss of a loved one, can understandably cause stress and influence performance at work because people don’t necessarily leave their worries at home. This means employers and managers should treat people as individuals and help them to balance their work and personal responsibilities. Our 2021 Employee resilience evidence review shows that key factors such as supportive co-workers and managers can help to protect people’s resilience.
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 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.
Our 2022 Health and wellbeing at work survey shows the main causes of employee stress include:
- Workloads/volume of work.
- Non-work factors - relationship or family issues.
- Management style.
- Non-work factors – personal illness or health issues.
- COVID-related anxiety, for example fear of contagion in the workplace/commute.
- New work-related demands or challenges due to homeworking as a result of COVID-19.
- Poor work-life balance due to homeworking as a result of COVID-19.
Stress in the time of coronavirus
The COVID-19 pandemic has raised serious concerns about people’s mental, as well as physical, health, and these won’t necessarily abate for everyone as we hopefully emerge from the pandemic. Many people have been suddenly shifted to new ways of working, such as full-time homeworking, that can increase demands but decrease the level of control people feel they have: this can be a recipe for increased stress. Our 2022 Health and wellbeing at work survey findings clearly show the impact of new stressors on people because of the pandemic. These concerns are a severe test of people’s resilience, and employers need to be aware of the personal, as well as work, pressures on people.
Employers should ensure they have an effective framework in place to detect signs of distress and/or stress and support people’s mental health. They need to ensure line managers in particular have the knowledge and confidence to spot the early warning of signs of stress, such as changes in behaviour and/or performance levels. They need to have sensitive conversations with individuals and signpost to help where needed. All employees should be encouraged to have a good self-care routine including a healthy approach to diet, relaxation and sleep which can help to reduce stress levels.
Our guide Coronavirus (COVID-19): Mental health support for employees provides advice for employers. CIPD members can also use our Wellbeing helpline and resources. There’s more on what employers should be doing in our Responding to the coronavirus hub.
Signs of stress
Signs that indicate employees may be suffering from excessive pressure or stress could be 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 any uncharacteristic behaviour in employees whilst not making judgements. It’s important to have an empathetic conversation with someone if you are concerned as a manager.
- 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 UK legal position
Under UK health and safety legislation and common law, employers have a duty to take care of employees. This includes a responsibility 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
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.
Developing an organisational framework
The Mental Health at Work Commitment is a simple framework for organisations to implement. Based on the Thriving at work review, it has six standards which provide a roadmap to achieving better mental health outcomes for employees:
- Prioritise mental health in the workplace by developing and delivering a systematic programme of activity.
- Proactively ensure work design and organisational culture drive positive mental health outcomes.
- Promote an open culture around mental health.
- Increase organisational confidence and capability
- Provide mental health tools and support.
- Increase transparency and accountability through internal and external reporting.
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:
- 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.
There are several approaches organisations can take to address stress at work. The 2022 Health and wellbeing at work survey report identifies the most common methods used to identify and reduce stress in the workplace:
- Employee assistance programme.
- Flexible working options/improved work–life balance.
- Staff surveys and/or focus groups to identify causes.
- Risk assessments/stress audits.
- Training for line managers to manage stress.
- Training aimed at building personal resilience (such as coping techniques, mindfulness).
- Involvement of occupational health specialists.
- Stress management training for the whole workforce.
- Written stress policy/guidance.
Organisations should focus their efforts on identifying the main risks of stress to people and implementing measures to reduce or eradicate them.
To help prevent workplace stress:
- Carry out a stress risk assessment, 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.
- Train line managers to identify potential causes of stress in their teams and manage people, and workloads, effectively.
- Increase support for staff during periods of change and uncertainty, particularly important during the ongoing uncertainty caused by the pandemic.
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.
The HSE has produced 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 should invest in:
- 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.
- Developing the people management skills and confidence of managers so they can have sensitive conversations with staff.
The role of line managers
Although line managers should hopefully be able to spot the early signs of stress in their team members, employers should ensure that line managers are supported, and have the resources and skills to look after people’s wellbeing.
While employers increasingly expect line managers to look after people’s health and wellbeing, often employers don’t provide the necessary training and support. For example, our 2022 Health and wellbeing at work survey report found that 56% 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 guidance for managers on preventing and reducing stress at work outlines the key steps they should take:
- Get to know your team better.
- Lead by example to promote healthy working habits.
- Review workloads, duties and responsibilities.
- Reflect on your own management style.
- Identify potential conflict and people issues and handle them early
- Discourage ‘presenteeism’ in your team.
- Manage the mental health of your team while remote working.
Our practical line manager support materials are built on research showing the behaviours managers need to exhibit to engage staff and promote positive wellbeing. They will help managers to explore and develop their own management behaviours.
Useful contacts and further reading
Books and reports
BARNETT, D. (2019) Preventing & defending employee stress claims. (Employment Law Library 3). London: Nielsen.
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.
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: Senior Employee Relations Adviser, CIPD
Rachel informs CIPD policy thinking on health and wellbeing as well as employment relations. She has over 20 years’ experience in the employment and HR arena.
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