Work-related stress affects both employers and employees. Managing workplace stress can reduce illness and absenteeism, improve workplace relations and productivity, and help you avoid making bad business decisions.
1. The cost of ignoring workplace stress
Stress is one of the single biggest causes of absence in the UK
- In 2021, stress, depression or anxiety accounted for 50% of all work-related ill health cases, according to Health & Safety Executive (HSE) statistics.
- The rate of self-reported workplace stress has been increasing over the past few years – resulting in the loss of millions of working days.
- HSE analysis shows that smaller workplaces have lower rates of work-related stress, depression and anxiety than larger organisations.
- However, no workplace is immune to employer and employee stress.
Work-related stress can result in high levels of employee turnover
- This can disrupt business and reduce productivity. It also increases costs (for example, on recruitment and training).
Employees experiencing stress are more likely to make poor decisions and casual errors
- They may apply faulty judgement to important matters. For example, in contract negotiations.
Workplace relations and customer service may deteriorate
- Employees are likely to be more irritable and less tolerant.
Employees experiencing work-related stress might take their employer to court
- Settlements can be expensive.
2. Recognise workplace stress
Stress is the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressure or other demands placed upon them (for example, an unmanageable workload or being poorly managed).
People facing challenges that they feel unable to cope with may experience stress, even if they appear to be managing well. The sooner stress is recognised as a potential problem, the sooner you can do something about it.
Stress can lead to behavioural changes in your employees
For example, those affected may:
- feel constantly rushed and unable to concentrate;
- not be able to switch off from work, or feel tired all the time;
- dread coming into work;
- lose their sense of humour and become moody and irritable;
- change the pattern of their working day (eg staying late and refusing to take breaks);
- start taking more sick leave;
- drop the standard of their work.
Employees may show signs of physical illness
For example, they may:
- complain of nausea, frequent headaches and migraines or other unexplained aches and pains;
- admit to sleeping badly;
- seem jumpy, or you may notice they are shaky or trembling.
Experiencing consistent levels of stress may lead to longer-term illnesses
- Stress has been linked to asthma, high blood pressure, heart disease, ulcers, strokes and even cancer.
- It can also cause or exacerbate mental health problems, such as anxiety or depression.
3. Common causes of workplace stress
There are many factors that can result in employees experiencing workplace stress. You may need to address several issues to remove the causes of the stress.
Demands of the job
- It is counterproductive to give employees too much to do, or not enough time to complete their work.
- Poor instructions or insufficient training can cause stress.
- Employees may over-estimate their own capacity for work, and then be reluctant to admit they have bitten off more than they can chew.
Long hours and reluctance to take leave
- It may sometimes be necessary for employees to come in early and leave late. But working in excess of normal hours for extended periods can result in accidents and mistakes.
- Problems with a manager or fellow employee can be a major source of work-related stress.
- Humiliating employees, or allowing others to, leads to a loss of respect and co-operation from employees.
- Bullying or aggressive behaviour will certainly cause stress and can also lead to legal action.
- Ineffective management can cause employees stress. For example, failure to address known problem areas or deal with problem employees.
Periods of change
- Any change in the way a business operates can upset the working environment.
- Insufficient support or information during times of change or busy periods creates uncertainty.
- Lack of clarity about roles, responsibilities and objectives causes confusion and lack of direction.
Personal (non-work) problems
- Managers should not ignore employees' personal problems.
- Bereavement, divorce, illness, moving home and financial problems can all cause high levels of stress that may impact on an employee's ability to carry out their job.
Tough at the top
Owner managers and directors often find their positions lonely and isolating, which itself can cause stress.
There is often little support in decision-making
- Employees often expect the boss to know exactly what to do.
- Decision-making is more stressful if there is no-one to share responsibility should things go wrong.
- Discussing work-related or personal problems with employees may feel inappropriate, leading to further feelings of isolation.
Find people to talk to
- Create an informal support group of other entrepreneurs, or people who work at the same level in other companies. They will probably be just as keen to discuss their challenges at work as you.
Consider bringing in outside help
- A mentor (or executive coach) could help you cope with the pressures of running a business.
4. Tackling the causes of workplace stress
Taking action to manage stress effectively can have a positive effect. Employees will be more committed to your business and productivity is likely to increase.
Introduce measures to reduce the demands of the job
- Set targets that are challenging, but realistic.
- Make sure employees do not take on too much work. Encourage delegation where possible.
- Provide training in time management, if necessary. Encourage employees to prioritise and tackle the most important tasks first.
- Cut back on time-wasting activities, such as unnecessary meetings.
- Allow flexible working hours and working from home, if appropriate.
- Use technology such as video-conferencing to allow staff to collaborate and work productively from different locations.
Take steps to avoid a long-hours culture
- Encourage employees to take regular short breaks in addition to longer holidays, to allow them to unwind fully.
- Make sure they take a proper lunch break, rather than eating on the job.
- Encourage employees to leave on time, and to switch off completely outside working hours.
Implement policies and procedures to improve working relationships
- Draw up a policy to prevent bullying and harassment.
- Consider training managers in interpersonal skills.
- Make sure there is someone within the business that employees can bring their problems to in confidence.
Establish a style of management that is appropriate and productive
- Rule by reward, not punishment. Let employees know their work is valued and appreciated.
- Review performance regularly, so employees know how well they are doing.
- Operate an open-door policy, and encourage employees to approach you with problems.
- Monitor levels of absence and sickness leave.
- Survey staff to assess attitudes and experiences in the workplace.
- Draw up a wellbeing policy stating that you take stress seriously, and detailing how you plan to tackle it.
- Offer employees training, help, advice and support.
Inform employees about changes that affect the way the business operates
- Ensure employees understand the business' long-term goals.
- Explain the reasons for any change and how they might personally be affected.
- Arrange meetings to discuss new projects so everyone is clear what is happening and knows what is expected of them.
- Encourage two-way communication with staff. Ask for input, ideas and opinions.
Establish clear job descriptions
- Clarify employees' objectives and responsibilities.
Provide support to employees experiencing personal problems and difficulties
- Offer employees time off if necessary.
- Consider offering more flexible working arrangements.
- If appropriate, encourage employees to seek professional help.
5. Managing workplace stress
Be aware of your legal responsibilities
- Under health and safety regulations, you are responsible for the occupational health of your employees.
- Implement the HSE management standards for work-related stress.
Conduct a stress risk assessment of your business
- Your audit should highlight existing and potential causes of stress.
- It should reflect the areas of risk identified in the HSE management standards.
- The audit can be done by using questionnaires or by talking to staff, individually or in groups.
Put in place an effective stress policy and procedures for managers and employees
- You can base your policy on the downloadable HSE model stress policy.
Make sure managers understand their roles and responsibilities for managing stress
Consider offering access to counselling services
- See where to get help.
6. Workplace stress - where to get help
There are several sources of guidance on managing workplace stress
- HSE publishes a range of work-related stress guidance, including various tools and real-life examples of how businesses have managed stress effectively.
- Acas offers tips and best practice for tackling workplace stress.
- The Institute of Occupational Health and Safety provides a free occupational health toolkit including guidance on dealing with stress.
- The Mental Health Foundation website has a range of free mental health publications and links to other useful sources of information.
You may want to get help from a professional
- Find a stress management professional through the International Stress Management Association.
- One-to-one stress counselling services can be found through the Employee Assistance Professionals Association or the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy.
- Find a local NHS occupational health provider.
- Find work-related stress guidance from HSE.
- Find guidance on dealing with stress in the Institute of Occupational Health and Safety occupational health toolkit.
- Find mental health publications and links to other useful sources of information from the Mental Health Foundation.
- Find stress management professionals and counselling services through the International Stress Management Association, the Employee Assistance Professionals Association or the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy.
- Find a local NHS occupational health provider.