Health, Safety, Security and Environment

Work-Related Stress short guide

10 min read

This Guide answers some common questions about work-related stress.
It explains what it is, and what you can do about it. The advice is intended specifically for managers of small firms, or organizations employing up to 50 staff. The guide does not introduce any concepts that are different from good management. Our belief is that plain good management can reduce work-related stress where it is already occurring and can prevent it in the first place.

Q: What is stress

  • Answer

    Stress is the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressure. It isn’t a disease. But if stress is intense and goes on for some time, it can lead to mental and physical ill-health (eg depression, nervous breakdown, heart disease).

Q: But stress can be a good thing, can’t it?

  • Answer

    No! Being under pressure often improves performance. It can be a good thing. But when demands and pressures become excessive, they lead to stress. And it’s clear from the recognized symptoms of stress that it’s actually bad for you.

Q: As an employer, is it my concern?

  • Answer

    Yes. It’s your duty in law to make sure that your employees aren’t made ill by their work. And stress can make your employees ill. Also, action to reduce stress can be very cost-effective. The costs of stress to your organization may show up as high staff turnover, an increase in sickness absence, reduced work performance, poor timekeeping, and more customer complaints. Stress in one person can also lead to stress in staff who have to cover for their colleague.
    Also, employers who don’t take stress seriously may leave themselves open to compensation claims from employees who have suffered ill health from work-related stress. Fortunately, reducing stress need not cost you a lot of money.

Q: Under health and safety law, what must I do about stress?

  • Answer

    Where stress caused or made worse by work could lead to ill health, you must assess the risk. A risk assessment for stress involves:

  • looking for pressures at work that could cause high and long-lasting levels of stress;

  • Deciding who might be harmed by these; and

  • Deciding whether you are doing enough to prevent that harm.

  • If necessary, you must then take reasonable steps to deal with those pressures. You must review the assessment whenever you think that it may no longer be valid. You should make sure that you involve your employees including Trade Union safety representatives where they have been appointed at every stage of the assessment process.

Q: Isn’t stress also caused by problems outside work? Are you saying I have to do something about that?

  • Answer

    You’re not under a legal duty to prevent ill health caused by stress due to problems outside work, eg financial or domestic worries. But non-work problems can make it difficult for people to cope with the pressures of work,
    and their performance at work might suffer. So being understanding to staff in this position would be in your interests.

Q: Are some people more likely to suffer from stress than others?

  • Answer

    We’re all vulnerable to stress, depending on the pressure we’re under at any given time: even people who are usually very hardy. As an employer, you’re responsible for making sure that work doesn’t make your employees ill. If you notice that someone is particularly vulnerable because of their circumstances, look at how their work is organized. See if there are ways to relieve the pressures so that they do not become excessive. However, unless you know otherwise, you could assume that all your employees are mentally capable of withstanding reasonable pressure from work.

Q: How do I recognize stress in a particular person?

  • Answer

    Many of the outward signs of stress in individuals should be noticeable to managers and colleagues. Look in particular for changes in a person’s mood or behavior, such as deteriorating relationships with colleagues, irritability, indecisiveness, absenteeism, or reduced performance. Those suffering from stress may also smoke or drink alcohol more than usual or even turn to drugs.
    They might also complain about their health: for example, they may get frequent headaches.

Q: How do I find out if stress could be a problem for my firm or organization?

  • Answer

    First, take informal soundings to get some idea of what problems there might be: for example, see if your staff are disillusioned with their work. This may show up as an increase in absenteeism (especially frequent short spells of sickness), lateness, disciplinary problems or staff turnover, or a reduction in output or quality of product or service. There may, of course, be other reasons for these symptoms, but if they could be related to stress at work get your staff to tell you about it by:

  • talking and listening to them. You could base the discussion on the sort of pressures mentioned in the middle of this booklet;

  • asking them to describe the three ‘best’ and the three ‘worst’ aspects of their job, and whether any of these put them under uncomfortable pressure.

    You can use the information you collect to identify common and persistent pressures, and who might be harmed by them.
    Several off-the-shelf questionnaires do the same kind of thing. These can be helpful but tend to be lengthy and may not ask the type of questions that are relevant to your organization. Also, interpreting the findings may require specialist knowledge.
    Remember to:

  • respect the confidentiality of your staff;

  • tell your staff what you plan to do with any information you collect;

  • involve them, as much as possible, in subsequent decisions;

  • involve safety representatives, if you have them, in your plans and decisions;

  • if you employ five or more staff, record the important findings from your risk assessment, for example by writing them down;

  • check from time to time that the situation hasn’t changed.

Q: If I do find out that stress is, or could be, a problem, what can I do about it?

  • Answer

    There’s no single best way of tackling work-related stress. What you do will depend on your working practices and the causes of the problem. But only providing training or help (or both) for sufferers won’t be enough – it won’t tackle the source of the problem! The boxes in the middle of this booklet show some of the pressures at work that might be relevant to smaller organizations, along with some suggestions about what to do.

Work-Related Stressors


Problems that can lead to stress

  • lack of communication and consultation
  • a culture of blame when things go wrong, denial of potential problems
  • an expectation that people will regularly work excessively long hours or take work home with them

What management can do

  • provide opportunities for staff to contribute ideas, especially in planning and organizing their own jobs
  • introduce clear business objectives, good communication, and close employee involvement, particularly during periods of change
  • be honest with yourself, set a good example, and listen to and respect others
  • be approachable – create an atmosphere where people feel it is OK to talk to you about any problems they are having
  • avoid encouraging people to work excessively long hours


Problems that can lead to stress

  • lack of control over work activities

What management can do

  • give more control to staff by enabling them to plan their own work, make decisions about how that work should be completed and how problems should be tackled


Problems that can lead to stress

  • poor relationships with others
  • bullying, racial or sexual harassment

What management can do

  • provide training in interpersonal skills
  • set up effective systems to prevent bullying and harassment (ie, a policy, agreed on grievance procedure and proper investigation of complaints)

Problems that can lead to stress

  • uncertainty about what is happening
  • fears about job security

What management can do

  • ensure good communication with staff
  • provide effective support for staff throughout the process
Demands of the job

Problems that can lead to stress

  • too much to do, too little time
  • too little/too much training for the job
  • boring or repetitive work, or too little to do
  • the working environment

What management can do

  • prioritize tasks, cut out unnecessary work, try to give warning of urgent or important jobs
  • make sure individuals are matched to jobs, provide training for those who need more, increase the scope of jobs for those who are over-trained
  • change the way jobs are done by moving people between jobs, giving individuals more responsibility, increasing the scope of the job, increasing the variety of tasks, giving a group of workers greater responsibility for effective performance of the group
  • make sure another workplace hazards, such as noise, harmful substances and the threat of violence, are properly controlled

Problems that can lead to stress

  • staff feel that the job requires them to behave in conflicting ways at the same time
  • confusion about how everyone fits in

What management can do

  • talk to people regularly to make sure that everyone is clear about what their job requires them to do
  • make sure that everyone has
  • clearly defined objectives and responsibilities linked to business objectives, and training on how everyone fits in
Support and the individual

Problems that can lead to stress

  • lack of support from managers and co-workers
  • not being able to balance the demands of work and life outside work

What management can do

  • support and encourage staff, eve when things go wrong
  • encourage a healthy work-life balance
  • see if there is scope for flexible work schedules (eg flexible working hours, working from home)
  • take into account that everyone is different, and try to allocate work so that everyone is working in a way that helps them work best

Remember to:

  • involve your staff and their representatives – they are certain to have good ideas you could use;
  • follow up any changes you make to ensure that they’re having the effect you intended;
  • review what you’ve done when you make major changes in your workplace (eg organizational change, new equipment, work systems or processes) to make sure that stress hasn’t increased;
  • lead by example – as a manager, you can communicate powerful signals about the importance of avoiding stress.

Q: But why would employees want to tell me about their stress?

  • Answer

    You’re right. Employees may be reluctant to admit they are feeling stressed by work. This is because being stressed can be seen as a sign of weakness. You can help by making it easier for your staff to discuss stress. Reassure them that the information they give you will be treated in confidence.

Q: What can I do to prevent stress from becoming a problem?

  • Answer

    Most of the ‘things to do’ boil down to good management. They’re ongoing processes that need to be built into the way your organization is run.

  • Show that you take stress seriously, and be understanding towards people who admit to being under too much pressure.

  • Encourage managers to have an open and understanding attitude to what people say to them about the pressures of their work and to look for signs of stress in their staff.

  • Ensure that staff has the skills, training, and resources they need so that they know what to do, are confident that they can do it, and receive credit for it.

  • If possible, provide some scope for varying working conditions and flexibility, and for people to influence the way their jobs are done. This will increase their interest and sense of ownership.

  • Ensure that people are treated fairly and consistently and that bullying and harassment aren’t tolerated.

  • Ensure good two-way communication, especially at times of change.
    Don’t be afraid to listen.

    Ask yourself whether you do these things. If you don’t or are unsure whether you do, take another look at the suggestions on ‘what management can do’ in the boxes in the middle of the booklet.

Q: What should I do if an employee complains about being stressed?

  • Answer

    First, listen to them! If the stress is work-related:

  • try to address the source(s);

  • involve the employee in decisions;

  • if necessary, encourage them to seek further help through their doctor;

  • if you are not their line manager, ensure that he or she treats the employees with understanding and maintains confidentiality.

    Where you can’t control the work-related sources of stress, it may be appropriate to move the employee if you can. If a period of sick leave is recommended, keep in touch with the employee and their doctor. Remember that they may be able to return to work to do part of their job, work reduced hours, or do a different job before they are ready to return to their old one.
    Try to be flexible!
    Don’t be tempted to think that firing someone provides an easy way out! If you don’t act reasonably in dismissing an employee, they could claim unfair dismissal.
    Finally, bear in mind that if one of your employees is suffering from work-related stress, they may represent the tip of an iceberg. Find out whether others are also experiencing stress at work.

Q: Should I be providing stress management training?

  • Answer

    Stress management training comes in various forms. It usually teaches people to cope better with the pressures they may come across. Because it focuses on the individual, it tends not to tackle the causes of stress at work. However,
    it can be useful as part of a ‘bigger plan’ to tackle work-related stress.

Q: Should I be providing a professional counseling service or an Employee Assistance Programme?

  • Answer

    Counseling service is usually paid for by employers. It provides counselors to whom individuals can talk privately about their problems. An Employee
    Assistance Programme (EAP) can provide various services (eg counseling, performance management, financial advice, legal assistance). You’re not under any legal obligation to provide such services. Also, because these services must protect the confidentiality of the individual, the information they can give you may not help you tackle the causes of stress at work. On the other hand,
    like training, they can be useful as part of a ‘bigger plan’ to tackle work-related stress. So, consider carefully whether such services would fit your needs and provide value for money for your organization.


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