Managing stress in the workplace

We ran our annual SME Business Survey back in November and asked what the most important aspects of Health and Safety over the next 12 months were. Mental health came out top, with 85% of SME business leaders stating that mental health will be their biggest health and safety challenge in 2023, an increase of 6% from 2021 and even surpasses statutory compliance. Poor mental health, In particular stress, can cause problems for employees in their work and home life, and it is therefore extremely important for employers to create an environment that reduces stress levels, where possible.

What is the definition of stress?

Stress caused by work is very common. If individuals often experience feelings of stress, they might be at risk of developing a mental health problem like depression or anxiety.

Stress can play a huge part in an employee’s life, so much so that stress awareness is now recognised alongside mental health awareness.

With such mental health issues linked to stress, it is important to understand what causes stress, stressful situations and ultimately, the steps employers can take to alleviate some of the key factors that are creating the problem.

The Health and Safety Executive defines stress as:

“The reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demands placed on them. Stress arises when employees worry that they cannot cope.” According to the HSE, stress is not an illness but a “state”.

Stress may become an illness if it is excessive and prolonged and a mental and/or physical illness develops as a result. There is a big difference between positive pressure which can lead to increased productivity and the harmful negative effects of pressure.

The TUC has defined stress more expansively:

“Stress occurs where demands made on individuals do not match the resources available or meet the individuals’ needs and motivation. Stress will be the result if the workload is too large for the number of workers and time available.

Equally, a boring or repetitive task which does not use the potential skills and experience of some individuals will cause them stress.”

Causes of stress

Stress can arise for a wide variety of reasons. However, the HSE has identified the main causes of stress at work, of which all managers should be aware, as:

  • Workloads (either too heavy or too light)
  • The level of control employees have over how they carry out their work
  • The support employees receive from their managers
  • The clarity of an employee’s role in the organisation
  • The nature of relationships at work.

Employers struggle with stress due to different individuals having widely different abilities to cope successfully with the pressures of working life.

Most people (whether they realise it or not) will have developed defence mechanisms or coping strategies to allow them to deal with stressful situations.

For example, some people are better able to plan their time effectively to enable them to deal with a rising workload. Some people feel better able than others to delegate or to refuse to take on additional work when they are overloaded.

Their ability to do this will depend on their level of seniority within the organisation and on their own self-confidence. Some employees simply have a higher capacity for working long hours under pressure than others.

Extreme and stressful time pressure will motivate certain people.

Recognising the symptoms of stress

The issue for employers is to recognise and deal with the symptoms of an adverse reaction in those employees who are in fact unable to cope with demands placed upon them.

Detecting the early symptoms of stress is no easy matter. There is often a natural reluctance amongst employees to complain that they are unable to cope. Often the case is that individuals will continue to attempt to deal with the pressure they are under for as long as possible.

It is essential that employers are able to recognise the warning signs indicating that an employee is under stress. Remedial action can be taken before the employee begins to suffer serious adverse effects to his/her health, which in turn impacts on the employee’s ability to perform his/her job. The warning signs are often a change in the employee’s normal behaviour, attendance or attitude.

Absence due to work-related stress

Employees sending sick notes with the words “stress” or “depression” on them need to be discussed. The reasons for the absence should be determined in your return to work interview.

Equally, if your employees complain of stress, take such complaints seriously and find out the causes. Then monitor the situation and the employee carefully and ensure that proper steps are taken to manage this and to ease the situation.

Failure to do so may mean that you lose a tribunal case and are also at risk for additional claims. Ill-health (including stress) could cause employee termination, provided that a fair procedure is followed.

Employers should check that they are not in breach of any health and safety duties, that there are no underlying issues of discrimination or bullying, and that any reasonable adjustments have been taken into account.

Dismissal may even be necessary to prevent the employee from further suffering.

However, losing staff is expensive. Not only in terms of any absence but also potentially in terms of recruitment costs and the cost of any potential claim.

Therefore consider alternatives prior to going down the route of a dismissal.

Mental health training

We offer Mental Health First Aid training. We are currently scheduling our next course however, if you would like to train your team then we can arrange a date and time that suits your business.

The course is suitable for all members of staff. It has been designed to help employers to provide a positive mental health culture within the workplace and to provide learners with comprehensive knowledge on a range of the most common mental health conditions and the skills to be able to act should a condition be suspected.

Those who complete the course will be considered First Aiders for Mental Health and be a point of contact within the workplace to help and support those with any mental health issues. This qualification lasts for three years.

If you are interested, or know of anyone who may be, you can register here.

Further advice

The HSE has a separate section of its website specifically covering stress. This includes guidance and also a risk-assessment tool to assist businesses to identify potential problem areas.

We are here to help

If you are unsure how to support your employees with their mental health, or would like to discuss our HR, Payroll, or Health and Safety services, please contact us and speak to a member of the team.




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