Assessing and Addressing Stress in the Workplace

Stress in the workplace can lead to absenteeism, increased staff turnover, and reduced productivity. The HSE views stress-related health problems as a significant concern for all businesses. Employers must treat stress as they would any other health hazard. This includes assessing work-related stress risks and implementing strategies to minimize them.

How Serious Is Stress At Work?

The HSE defines stress as ‘the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressure or other types of demand placed on them’ and lists it as a ‘psychosocial hazard’. It believes work-related stress is a significant concern for organisations, and addressing it can bring significant benefits.

When stress becomes excessive and persists over an extended period, it can give rise to both mental and physical health challenges. Stress is associated with factors like excessive workloads, fatigue, and weariness.

According to the most recent Workplace Health report, stress levels are a concern for 76% of employees, with 33% stating that it hampers their productivity. Workload emerges as the primary contributor to work-related stress, affecting 73% of individuals. The latest HSE annual statistics on work-related stress are due this month. The most recent report indicates that professional and technical occupations have higher rates of work-related stress, depression, or anxiety compared to other occupational groups.

Stress can be very harmful to employees. It can lead to fatigue, high levels of anxiety, low self-esteem, lack of motivation, and difficulty in thinking rationally. Long-term stress at work can cause burnout, which is characterised by exhaustion and detachment from work.

Physical symptoms can include headaches and migraines, panic attacks, chest pains and stomach problems. Researchers have found a connection between work-related stress and serious health problems such as high blood pressure, ulcers, coronary heart disease, alcoholism, asthma, diabetes, and cancer. The consequences of stress can be so bad that failure to act on stress at work issues may leave an organisation vulnerable to claims by staff for damages if they become ill as a result.

Six Areas Of Risk

The HSE has developed management standards that outline best practices for assessing and running an organisation with effective control over workplace stress. These standards help businesses identify areas needing action and guide their risk assessment processes.

The HSE Management Standards give six pivotal areas, which research shows have been linked to an elevated risk of stress:

  1. Demands: including factors such as a fast-paced work environment, lone working, inadequate training, a poor physical work environment, and exposure to violence or aggression.
  2. Control: including issues like lack of inclusion in decision-making processes and insufficient influence over task design.
  3. Role: covering problems related to role conflict and role ambiguity.
  4. Relationships: involving concerns related to bullying, harassment, and limited support in the workplace.
  5. Change: encompassing issues triggered by new technologies, shifting market demands, and organisational restructuring.
  6. Support, training, and individual factors: including poor training, a lack of support and feedback, and a lack of constructive advice tailored to individual employees.

The HSE acknowledges that this list does not explicitly address ‘work culture’ as a standalone category. However, each of these six areas can reflect the prevailing ‘work culture’ within an organisation. The organisation must address and correct any cultural issues if it is to effectively manage the risks associated with the above six key areas.

Assessing Stress Risk

Before addressing issues of stress in the workplace, employers must know what the problems are. Both qualitative methods and quantitative methods can gather information about stress.

Qualitative methods include:

  • Talking to staff — information can be gathered by talking to staff during team meetings or walk-throughs with supervisors or department managers. Alternatively, it may also be possible to set up a focus group to gather data.
  • Performance appraisals — these offer the opportunity for a one-to-one discussion between a manager or supervisor and an employee, in which the manager can explore whether the individual is experiencing an excessive amount of pressure during their work.
  • Managing return-to-work — following sickness absence, return-to-work interviews can provide an important opportunity to discover if the sickness was caused by issues at work and, if so, what actions can be taken to prevent their recurrence.

Quantitative methods include:

  • Productivity data — If there is a drop in productivity, talk to employees to understand why.
  • Sickness/absence data — above normal levels of sickness absence could be an indicator of specific work-related problems. Return-to-work interviews may provide information about work-related stress being the reason for absence.
  • Staff turnover — exit interviews can be a good way of determining if work-related stress is a factor when a member of staff leaves. Any relevant information should then be used to investigate the situation for the remaining employees.
  • Statistics — data collected about work-related accidents and incidents can be analysed to help identify the impact of work-related stress on members of staff. It is important to keep in mind, though, that not all statistical data can be relied upon. The data on accidents, incidents, and sick leave might indicate some symptoms, but might not reflect the complete impact of work-related stress in the organisation.
  • Questionnaires — some organisations have found questionnaires or surveys to be useful for determining if work-related stress is a problem. Not only do they give a snapshot of the current workplace situation, but they also allow comparison of information year after year (if the same questions are asked). Questionnaires must respect confidentiality if they are to be successful.

Interpreting the collected data should be done by someone with the appropriate expertise, either in-house or an external agency. Managers should regularly review issues such as volume of work, job design and working hours. Employers should monitor employee communications, training, management style, and workplace bullying or harassment.

Stress at Work Policy

The HSE takes the stance that organisations can preempt and manage work-related stress through proactive measures. Every organisation needs to have a stress policy that is created collaboratively by employees and management.

A good stress policy should have measures to reduce and manage workplace stress. It should include information on employee support for stress and training opportunities.

If the business has a staff handbook, it should include a section on stress at work and occupational health support. It should familiarize new employees with the key elements of this policy during their induction.

Regular policy reviews should include any organisational changes within the business and developing legislative requirements concerning work-related stress.

The Health and Safety Executive has key guidance and resources for developing a stress policy and an action plan, including Stress Talking Toolkits to help managers talk with workers as part of an approach to preventing and managing work-related stress.

Other Resources

This year’s annual National Stress Awareness Day is 2 November 2023. It was set up to raise awareness of the effects of psychological distress in the workplace and strategies to address it. The charity Rethink Mental Illness has advice and information about stress and what can be done to manage stress before it becomes a problem.

Following research that found two construction workers in the UK take their own lives each day and 27% of all illness in the industry is stress, depression or anxiety, a wellbeing and welfare portal was set up for people working in construction. It offers various resources to support emotional, physical, and financial well-being and helps people identify and manage their struggles.

Stress can cause low morale, absenteeism, high staff turnover, reduced productivity, and more accidents and compensation claims. Employees must get the wellbeing support they need, including in mental health. Statistics prove that supporting stress at work benefits employees by reducing suffering, and stigma, and increasing productivity. It also means in the worst cases, lives will be saved.

New Broom Training offer consultancy services and can advise on H&S risk assessments.