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.
According 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.
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:
- Identifying the relevant risk factors
- Deciding who is at risk and how, by analysing existing data and carrying out surveys
- Evaluating the risks and working with employees to develop solutions
- Recording findings by producing and distributing an action plan, then implementing it
- Monitoring and reviewing any action taken.
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
Depression, burnout and how to talk about mental health at work – My story, by Ann Diment
Ann Diment is Director of Work Safe and Well, transforming burned out professionals into resilient and compassionate leaders. She wants to smash the stigma of talking about mental health, to empower everyone to start those ‘difficult’ conversations so they can become more confident and creative leaders.
My experience of workplace stress, in an organisation that didn’t see occupational stress as an issue: In conversation with Kate Field
Kate Field has never had a diagnosed mental illness or received medical treatment for her mental health. But like so many, she has certainly suffered with her mental health.
Top 10 driving stresses revealed as traffic gets heavier
The top 10 driving stresses facing drivers as roads return to normal have been revealed, with the return of traffic jams now causing the most agitation behind the wheel.
Work-related violence and aggression: Don’t accept it. Report it. Prevent it.
In this article Helen Beers from the Health and Safety Executive and Sheena Johnson from the Alliance Manchester Business School at the University of Manchester discuss work-related violence and aggression – the importance of staff reporting incidents to their employers, and of employers understanding the problem and taking action to prevent it.
ISO 45003: World’s first international workplace mental health Standard published
The British Standards Institute (BSI) has published BS ISO 45003:2021: Occupational Health and Safety Management. Psychological Health and Safety at Work. Guidelines for Managing Psychosocial Risks.
Hiring during the pandemic: Analysis reveals what employees want from their work-life
New analysis of our search habits carried out by health experts at Bupa has identified what employees are really looking for in an employer.
The wild west of wellbeing
Dr Nick Bell explains that wellbeing may exist in an ‘unregulated’ space between various disciplines. Here he explores what wellbeing means, discusses some of the long-standing theories that can inform our understanding and sets out practical steps that a health and safety practitioner can take to make a success of wellbeing.
Long working hours: ‘745,000 deaths are the tip of the iceberg’
The World Health Organization has recently drawn attention to research which estimated that 745,000 people died globally in 2016 due to health conditions (such as stroke and heart disease) associated with long working hours. Dr Nick Bell discusses the implications and the likelihood that this is a significant underestimation of the harm caused by long working hours.
Preventing work-related stress in construction
The HSE’s Preventing work-related stress in construction toolkit is aimed at small businesses with a regular workforce.
One year on: 9 lessons we’ve learned from lockdown
Bupa’s health experts reveal nine lessons we’ve learned from lockdown. As restrictions begin to ease our experts share their tips on how to form positive work habits as we look towards the future.
Why organisations must learn from remote working impact
James Pomeroy, Director of Quality, Health, Environment and Safety at Lloyd’s Register, explains how results from the global safety assurance specialists’ latest report shines a light on the true impact working from home has had on staff mental health.
Driver stress increases following year of lockdown
New research has revealed that stress and anger behind the wheel has increased since the first national lockdown, in March 2020, and that drivers themselves admit that these negative moods are having a detrimental effect on their driving behaviour.
‘40% of remote rotational workers experience suicidal thoughts some or all of the time’
The impact of the coronavirus pandemic on remote rotational workers has been revealed in a new global study by the International SOS Foundation and Affinity Health at Work.
Tools to prevent, reduce and manage stress in the workplace
HSE says there are six key factors which, if not properly managed, are associated with poor health, lower productivity and increased accident and sickness absence rates and urges employers to review the stress-causing factors in their workplaces and the work that their employees do.
Employee wellbeing: Shifting the focus on employee benefits in a pandemic
The Guardian recently published a special feature on employee wellbeing, in collaboration with the Workplace Wellbeing Show. Download it now…
Work-related stress and the wellbeing of frontline workers
In episode 9 of the Safety & Health Podcast, we hear from Peter Kelly, Senior Psychologist for the HSE about work-related stress and Inspector Phil Spencer, Blue Light Programme Co-ordinator at Cleveland Police, discusses the stress of working on the frontline during the pandemic.
How technology can help boost workplace wellbeing
Sue Horsfall, HR Director, Agilitas, explores how the shift to home working will have an effect on mental health and how, if tackled correctly, the benefits could be long lasting. She also shares her insight into how to innovate and trust in technology, which could result in a better world for mental health, both inside and outside the workplace, in years to come.
5 safety risks to map in 2021
DuPont Sustainable Solutions has surveyed organisations across a range of industries in Europe, interviewed safety leaders who successfully navigated the crisis and compiled a country-by-country analysis of the safety outlook. The findings, published in a comprehensive report, identify where organisations’ safety efforts most commonly succeed and where they fail.
Why work-related stress is getting critical. And what to do about it
Work-related stress is on the increase, but how do you strike a balance between prevention and paternalism? In this ‘how to’ style piece, Carl Laidler, Director of Wellbeing at Health Shield, focuses on how OH, Risk and HR can better work together.
Working from home and loneliness: Tips on supporting staff that may be feeling lonely
Pablo Vandenabeele Clinical Director for Mental Health at Bupa shares his top tips on how to spot signs of loneliness in your team when you’re an employer or manager, along with advice on how to support your team if they’re struggling.
Supporting yourself and your team during coronavirus
Dane Krambergar, Head of Workplace Wellbeing Services at mental health charity Mind, explores how employers can address mental health and wellbeing in the workplace as many of us continue to work remotely and how e-learning can benefit you further.
Webinar: Wellbeing by numbers
Catch-up or listen again to this session:
- Learn how to use data to shape your workplace wellbeing strategy;
- Hear evidence of the impact that wellbeing has on productivity and bottom line;
- Get expert advice on the challenges of implementing a data-led wellbeing strategy and how to overcome them;
- Understand how the changing priorities and pressures of the pandemic have influenced wellbeing programmes;
- Walk away with a health & wellbeing toolkit that will help you implement and evaluate your wellbeing strategy.
Join Westfield Health CEO, Dave Capper, Professor Jeff Breckon from the Advanced Wellbeing Research Centre at Sheffield Hallam University and Sky Wellbeing Health & Fitness Manager Alistair Hugo, now...