The overall impact of stress on organisations and employees is significant. It limits productivity and is at the root of countless costly errors and misunderstandings. Ongoing workplace stress is also a contributor to a wide range of debilitating health issues, such as anxiety, depression, and heart disease.
It is estimated that workplace stress costs over £5 billion a year in Great Britain, according to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). In addition, some 17.9 million workdays were lost to work-related stress time off in 2019/20.
Organisations must have protocols in place to deal with workplace stress. Failure to do so could have a detrimental effect morally, financially, and legally.
If an employer fails to support the mental and emotional wellbeing of an employee, it is possible for that employee to make a work-related stress claim. Beyond the legal implications, supporting a mentally healthy workforce makes good business sense.
A stress-free staff is also one that is happier, more productive, more flexible in solving problems, and less likely to call in sick.
The key to managing workplace stress is being able to identify it, having controls in place, and ensuring those who have a responsibility in controlling it are trained adequately to do so.
Everybody experiences workplace stress at some time during their lives. Some experience it on a daily basis, while others may only feel stressed on the odd occasion. It can be a one-off state or prolonged.
The HSE defines stress as:
‘the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them.’
These pressures and demands can arise from a variety of sources in the workplace. These include:
- Having to meet deadlines
- Feeling ill-equipped to fulfil one’s roles, due to lack of experience or training
- Working with colleagues where there are strong differences
- Workplace bullying
Too much workplace stress can cause employees to feel unable to cope. This in turn could lead to reduced morale, an increase of stress-induced accidents and increased cases of sickness absence.
The symptoms of stress can manifest both physically and mentally and are different from person to person. The effects of stress in the workplace can be debilitating or even life-changing.
Common symptoms include:
- Lack of motivation
- Loss of confidence
- Difficulty concentrating
- Feelings of anxiety or depression
- Heightened emotions – crying, easily irritated, short temper
- Lack of enthusiasm for a job once loved
- Feeling unable to cope / overwhelmed
Physical effects include:
- Excess sweating
- Raised heartbeat
- Dizzy spells
- Increased or reduced weight
- Decline in personal appearance/hygiene
In some employees, these symptoms may be hidden or less obvious. But in others, they may be much more obvious or noticeable.
Every employer has a legal duty to protect their employees from stress by conducting a workplace stress risk assessment. They must then take any necessary actions based on the results of the assessment.
A stress risk assessment does not need to be complicated. A range of templates can be found online. Anyone conducting a stress risk assessment should have the proper training and competence to complete it.
Involving employees or employee representatives in the risk assessment process is always a good idea as they are the ones who actually carry out the tasks that expose them to the risk.
Completed risk assessments should always be shared with the workforce and reviewed accordingly.
A workplace stress scale is a useful tool for understanding the levels of stress in your workplace. A scale uses a workplace stress survey to gauge how employees are feeling, whether they are experiencing stress due to their work, and at what level.
If done correctly, this will inform actions that would need to be taken to reduce the likelihood of stress in the workplace. There are a variety of stress surveys available online that you can find through a simple search. Choose one that best suits your organisation.
Surveys should not be a one-off exercise, but should be sent out on a regular basis, such as annually. This will give you a good understanding of how employees are feeling, as well as which initiatives are working.
When necessary, an intervention strategy for workplace stress can be implemented to proactively prevent incidents from occurring.
Any strategies to manage workplace stress should be discussed by senior management and added to the agenda of Health & Safety Committee meetings.
Encourage employees to speak up when they start to feel stressed out by their work. They should know that they can speak out without fear of judgement.
Managers should be trained to spot the signs of stress and know how to effectively handle the situation.
Creating a workplace culture supportive of positive mental health is vital to reducing the impact of stress on the workforce. Senior management can support this by leading by example, letting employees know that they are not alone in dealing with workplace stress.
Company-wide workplace stress relief activities and campaigns are also excellent ways to support good mental health at work. Examples include:
- Employee newsletters
- Town halls
- Safety tours
- Walking meetings
- Exercise classes
- Mindfulness instruction
Activities such as these will boost morale and in turn the overall safety culture of the organisation.
The HSE have pinpointed workplace stress to the following six areas:
If one or more of these areas become challenging to an employee they can cause stress. A range of guidance has been produced to enable employers to tackle each of these areas.
The first step in tackling occupational stress is to identify it as an area of potential risk. Prioritise a thorough risk assessment to identify potential causes of stress in the workplace and who may be harmed. The outcome of the risk assessment can be used to implement a policy and strategies to support employee wellbeing.
Workers should always be involved in the crafting of policy documents and initiatives that will affect them. This will also allow them to provide their valuable input into the process, while boosting staff morale.
Staff surveys and questionnaires that seek to gain an understanding of what may be causing stress are a good way to identify trends. Those assigned to combating stress can use the resulting data to establish areas for improvement.
Lastly, it is vital that managers are trained in how to spot when a team member may be under undue stress and what to do about it.
Surveys, questionnaires, and discussions in one-to-one and team meetings are good ways of measuring stress in the workplace.
Cases of workplace stress are increasing. The number of cases of work-related stress, depression, and anxiety reached 828,000 in 2019/20, according to the Labour Force Survey. This marks a significant rise over the previous year.
In most cases, workplace stress alone is not a disability. But high levels of stress are often linked to more potentially debilitating mental health issues such as depression and anxiety.
If you have concerns about your own levels of stress, it is always best to talk to your GP or a medical professional.
Providing adequate stress-related training is essential to controlling the risks of workplace stress that employees face. This provides staff with the competence to recognise the hazards of stress, its symptoms, and how to effectively manage stress-related issues that come up.
Human Focus provides a range of courses covering the management of stress and how to cope with stress in offices, industry, and healthcare. These e-learning courses include:
- Coping with Stress In Offices – What Everyone Needs To Know
- Coping with Stress In Industry – What Everyone Needs to Know
- Managing Stress In Offices – For Managers
- Managing Stress In Industry – For Managers
- Essentials of Stress Risk Assessments