April 17, 2019

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Stress at work

The HSE defines work-related stress as an adverse reaction, caused by extensive pressures or other demands placed on people during their employment, which can lead to physical or mental ill health.

work-stressAccording to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development’s Absence Management Survey 2013 stress at work is rising, and remains one of the most common causes of long- and short-term sickness for manual and non-manual employees. Two-fifths of organisations reported an increase in stress-related absence over the previous year, rising to more than half in the public sector.

Despite its prevalence, both employees and employers can be reluctant to engage with stress at work. Employees find the topic emotionally difficult, fearing that they will be seen as unable to cope, and employers may be wary of raising issues which could create management problems. Many people confuse stress with pressure, or with mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. In dealing with stress in the workplace, the Chief Medical Officer’s report for 2013 warns against employers carrying out stress audits because they risk modifying employees’ expectations, and could lead to increased reports of mental illness. Instead, the report recommends implementing measures, such as flexible working hours, which increase employees’ control.

Legal Duty on Employers

All employers have a legal responsibility to protect the health, safety and welfare at work of their employees, which includes assessing and minimising the risk of stress-related illness or injury. Employers are responsible for action both at board level and among their employees, and failure to assess risks, put in place or implement a policy to deal with stress in the workplace may result in enforcement action by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), direct financial costs including sick pay, sickness cover or the cost of settling civil claims, and indirect costs as a result of low workplace morale or lost productivity.

Reputational and legal costs can be high: West Dorset General Hospitals NHS Trust and Liverpool Hope University were served with improvement notices in 2003 and 2009 respectively for failing to risk assess employees’ exposure to causes of work-related stress, and in 2002 a former Post Office worker was awarded damages of £93,880 plus costs after managers failed to implement measures to help him cope with a stress-related illness caused by overwork. In terms of indirect costs, the HSE’s 2013 report on Stress and Psychological Disorders shows that work-related stress caused workers in Great Britain to lose 10.4 million working days in 2011/2012, and accounted for 40% of all work-related illnesses in 2011/12, particularly among health, teaching and education professionals.

HSE Guidance

The HSE has produced extensive guidance and various tools on its website for employers and employees seeking to deal with stress at work. The guidance identifies six risk factors as influencing work-related stress:

  • The demands placed on employees
  • The control which employees have over their work
  • Whether adequate information and support is received from colleagues and superiors
  • Unacceptable behaviour such as bullying
  • How far employees understand their role and responsibilities
  • The extent to which employees are consulted and informed about organisational changes.

To help organisations carry out risk assessments on stress in the workplace, the HSE has published ‘Management Standards’ to enable employers to meet their legal obligations. Those implementing the Management Standards should follow five steps:

  1. Identifying the relevant risk factors
  2. Deciding who is at risk and how, by analysing existing data and carrying out surveys
  3. Evaluating the risks and working with employees to develop solutions
  4. Recording findings by producing and distributing an action plan, then implementing it
  5. Monitoring and reviewing any action taken.

Work-related stress

Work-related stress is defined as “a harmful reaction people have to undue pressures and demands in the workplace”.

Workplace mental health issues are often associated with stress. Exposure to high levels of stress at work can cause emotional symptoms such as depression, tearfulness, withdrawal, mood swings, loss of motivation or concentration and behavioural changes such as smoking, drinking, drugs, changes to eating or sleeping habits and nervous behaviour.

Poor employee mental health arising from stress can cost your business time and money in lost productivity and sickness absence.


Do not be stressed by stress! Dealing successfully with work-related stress requires clear leadership from employers and engagement on the part of employees, but the increasing costs of failing to deal with this difficult and emotive area mean that ignoring it is not an option. I encourage readers to look at it methodically, which can help remove the excess emotion that often parades side by side with stress management programmes.

Dealing with work-related stress requires empathy, but is essentially no different in this regard to the management of other workplace health topics. Approach it with a confident programme of communication and active worker collaboration and avoid a defensive style as it strongly suggests that an organisation has something to hide. Even consider attaching an anti-stress programme to your CSR and Sustainability programmes, which helps to promote positive messaging.

Articles about work-related stress

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Nathan Baker – Institute of Occupational Medicine

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New online learning tool launched by HSE to help address work-related stress

An online learning tool designed to prevent work-related stress has been launched by the HSE as part of its Working Mind’s campaign. 

HSE annual workplace stats: Rise in construction deaths while 1.8m cite work-related ill health

Nearly two million workers in Great Britain reported suffering from work-related ill health in 2022/23 as construction sector reports rise in fatalities.

Stress Awareness Week: Easy ways to incorporate stress relief into our workday

In light of International Stress Awareness week being annually observed during the first week of November, Dakota Murphey looks at how bringing stress-reducing habits into each workday can leave you feeling more focused, productive and satisfied.

‘Add health as the lens to your business performance’ – British Safety Council Conference 2023

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New wellbeing and welfare portal developed to help improve mental health in construction workforce

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Feeling the heat? – Tips on heat stress

With temperatures beginning to soar above 30 degrees this week in many parts of the UK, we revisit this article on tips for avoiding heat stress at work.

Road Haulage Association joins HSE’s Working Minds campaign

HSE has launched a campaign saying that more needs to be done to protect Britain’s HGV drivers from work-related stress.

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“It’s not about us having a seat at the table – we are the table, and we just need to recognise that.” EHS Congress 2023  

The sixth annual EHS Congress in Berlin last month focused on mental health, wellbeing, and safety culture. Led by Professor Dr Andrew Sharman over two-days, here we provide an overview of the some of the topics discussed.        

Be wary of safety’s ‘velvet rut’

IOSH President Elect, Stuart Hughes, says to succeed we need to get uncomfortable.

Men encouraged to seek health help at the first signs of symptoms

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The ‘Zoom’bie Effect 

In this month’s legal column from Eversheds Sutherland, Catherine Henney, speaks to Mental Health and Strategist and Consultant, Amy Mckeown, about the impact of the pandemic on workers’ mental health and ISO45003, the first international standard on managing psychological health and safety at work.

Mental Health Awareness Week focuses on anxiety in 2023

The annual Mental Health Awareness Week this year has a focus on the theme of anxiety.

Angela Asks: Kevin Barr, Head of HSEQ at Group Metropolitan

The return of an old interview series, in which I catch up with people who take part in Safety &

‘Organisations rarely evaluate the impact of psychological health interventions’: HSE’s Phoebe Smith on risk assessments for work-related stress

Human Factors Technical Team Lead previews her upcoming Safety & Health Expo presentation to SHP.

Metaverse helps to alleviate anxiety in the workplace

A metaverse has been used to carry out an anonymous study which found miscommunication and fear are root causes of anxiety in the workplace.

What makes us susceptible to burnout?

In this episode  of the Safety & Health Podcast, ‘Burnout, stress and being human’, Heather Beach is joined by Stacy Thomson to discuss burnout, perfectionism and how to deal with burnout as an individual, as management and as an organisation.

We provide an insight on how to tackle burnout and why mental health is such a taboo subject, particularly in the workplace.


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Phil Pinnington
Phil Pinnington
9 years ago

Stress indicators are certainly a step in the right direction and stress survey’s provide some context we still have no reasonable benchmarks to work with.
The HSE toolkit uses comparable data from 2009 and it’s based on the manufacturing sector. Given the changes in the working environment post banking crash we really need some credible benchmarking from the service sector to help managers prioritise actions more effectively.

Ann McCracken
Ann McCracken
8 years ago

My current understanding of benchmarking from the HSE is that they now require us to do our own – in other words – compare with your last one(s) and set realistic improvements.

The original HSE benchmarks were from the “willing 100” companies who took part in the development of the original Risk Assessment tool but it was not a good benchmark as they were mostly large Corporate organisations.
At least self benchmarking can take into account culture and current innovations, takeovers etc if Management is honest and brave enough to look that deep.