Managing Work-related Stress: A Guide for Smaller Employers

According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), in 2015/16 more than 480,000 people in the UK reported that work-related stress was making them ill. This amounts to nearly 40% of all work-related illness. Work-related stress can lead to lower productivity, lost workdays, and a higher turnover of staff. So, reducing it should be a priority for all organisations. Employers also have a legal obligation to ensure the health, safety and welfare of their employees and are, therefore, required to conduct stress risk assessments and to take actions to prevent staff from experiencing stress-related illness because of their work.

So, what is work-related stress?

Mental health problems may be caused, or worsened, by a range of factors, some of which may be work-related, or to do with issues in an employee’s personal life – often, it’s a mixture of the two. Someone experiencing problems at home may find that workplace situations they would normally be able to cope with are causing them to feel under pressure.

When work pressure exceeds ability to cope – and particularly when there is no respite –stress becomes a detrimental force; in other words, unmanageable stress or ‘burn-out’. People can respond to emotional stress as if it were a physical threat; muscles will tense, heartbeat and breathing will quicken as the body goes into ‘fight or flight’ mode, and various hormones, including adrenaline, are triggered.

Unmanageable stress can have physical, psychological and behavioural affects which, if not addressed, can lead to a range of mental health problems, including (most commonly) anxiety and depression.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has recently classified ‘burn-out’ i.e. chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed as a medical condition and identifies the common symptoms as:

• feelings of energy depletion or mental exhaustion
• increased mental distance from one’s job
• feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job
• reduced professional efficacy

What are the causes?

There are many workplace factors that can cause mental health problems. Most relate to interactions between type of work, the organizational and managerial environment, the skills and competencies of employees, and the support available for employees to carry out their work. For example, a person may have the skills to complete tasks, but they may have too few resources to do what is required, or there may be unsupportive managerial or organizational practices. Dysfunctional coworker relationships, or hostile relationships between supervisors and subordinates, can also have detrimental effects on employee morale, boosting stress levels. A 2019 Acas poll found the most common causes of stress and/or anxiety for employees was their workload, the way they were managed, and their work-life balance.

Identifying and managing the key risks

The HSE’s Stress Management Standards define the characteristics, or culture, of an organisation where the risks from work related stress are effectively managed and controlled. They consider six key aspects of work that, with a lack of proper management, can cause stress:

• demands – which includes such issues as workload, work patterns and the working environment;
• control – how much say people have in the way that they do their work;
• support – which includes the encouragement, sponsorship and resources provided by the organisation, line management and colleagues;
• relationships – which includes promoting positive working in order to avoid conflict, as well as dealing with unacceptable behaviour;
• role – whether people understand their own role within the organisation and whether the organisation ensures that they do not have conflicting roles; 
• change – how both large and small organisational changes are managed and communicated to employees.

Each of the six stress management standards provide simple statements about good management practice in relation to the desired standard. As well as being a yardstick for gauging an organisation’s performance in tackling the key causes of stress, the standards provide a useful framework for conducting stress risk assessments, helping organisations fulfil their legal obligation to identify the key work factors that may cause their employees to feel stressed and to then find ways to prevent, or manage these risks more effectively. Stress Risk Assessments do not need to be complicated and the HSE describes a simple risk assessment process that involves 5 steps. Click here to read more…

People Based Solutions is an HR and Workplace Health & Safety support company, specialising in supporting small and medium sized businesses. If you would like to know more about how we can help you develop effective Stress Management strategies and processes, or if we can help you with any other HR or Health & Safety matters, call us on 01925 425 857, send an e-mail to: or click here to visit our website.

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