Stress In The Workplace: What You Need to Know

Peninsula Team

August 26 2009

The Health & Safety Advice Service is on hand to help your business minimise any potential causes of stress in the workplace. They have years of industry experience and are trained to ensure your business stays a stress free zone for employees. Just call one of our specialists today on 0844 892 2785 and they will be happy to help protect your business.

Stress is becoming an increasingly important problem in today's workplace. In various studies about 1/3 of workers report high levels of stress and 1/4 of them consider their work as the most significant stressor in their lives. There is also evidence to show that stress is a major cause of turnover in organisations and that work related stress has a direct cost to British employers of around £500 million per year (at 2001/2002 prices).

What is stress? In general terms it is what happens when we do not respond appropriately to emotional or physical threats, whether actual or imagined. It includes a state of alarm and adrenaline production, short-term resistance as a coping mechanism, and exhaustion. Common stress symptoms include irritability, muscular tension, inability to concentrate and a variety of physical reactions, such as headaches and elevated heart rate.

Stress at work, or workplace stress, is commonly defined as 'the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them'. It arises when they feel that they cannot cope with those demands. The body’s response to stress is natural and is not in itself an illness. We need some degree of exposure to stress for our day to day physiological and psychological well being; the effects are short-lived and cause no lasting harm. However, it is well established that when exposure is excessive and prolonged stress does result in physical and psychological illness.

Figures from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) show that in 2004/5 an estimated 12.8 million working days were lost to work related stress. Each individual case averaged 30.9 lost working days. In a long running, 15 year study, of 10,000 British workers it was found that:

  • Factors concerned with work organisation are capable of inducing both psychological and physical ill health.
  • Management style has the potential to affect the health of employees.
  • Interventions are only likely to be effective if applied to management systems and work organisation, rather than at the individual level.
  • Many groups of workers, but most often teachers, nurses and managers reported being highly stressed.

The Health and Safety At Work Act and its associated 'Management Regulations' require employers to assess the risks to their employees and to take reasonably practicable measures to protect their health, safety and welfare whilst at work. There is also a common law duty of care towards their workforce. The courts accept that workplace stress exists, that there is a clear link between the organisation and management of work and stress, and that employers have a duty to reduce work related stress and its consequences. A number of successful claims have been brought against employers by employees who have been able to prove that they have suffered work related stress.

These successful cases raise questions of when and how that liability might arise and what an employer should do to minimise the risk of work related stress both generally and in respect of a particular employee.

HSE advice is that good management practices will help avoid or identify the onset, and when necessary reduce the consequence, of stress. They have developed a set of Management Standards for work related stress which will help employers manage the situation in their workplace.

The standards look at 6 key areas where the organisation or design of work can lead to work related stress:

1. The demands of the job. Factors that cause stress include;
i. the quantity, pace and content of the work load - too lilttle is as bad as too much;
ii. work schedules - irregular shift patterns, inadequate breaks from work and uncertain hours are stressors; and
iii. the physical environment where high noise levels, thermal comfort, and the threat of violence are relevant.

2. The amount of control an employee has over their work. Stress can be caused by;
i. a lack of control over the work,
ii. low autonomy; and
iii. a prescriptive routine where the worker has little decision-making to do.

3. The support that an employee receives whilst at work. Problems can arise when the worker’s skills don’t come up to the job and they are not helped or supported by their employer, direct manager or their colleagues.

4. The employee’s role in the job. An individual can become stressed when they are unsure of their position, for example;
i. their role is ambiguous - the employer doesn't recognise them as a manager but in some circumstances expects them to act as a manager;
ii. in a management position they feel out of their depth; or conversely
iii. they feel that they are too closely managed and that they are not given an appropriate level of responsibility; and
iv. where there is a conflict in their role - where they have to take one side of an argument while believing in and supporting the other side.

5. The employee’s relationship with the people they work with - interpersonal conflicts, bullying and harassment.

6. The way change is managed by the employer. The way changes to business processes and work activities are manages is a very significant cause of stress, especially when untried and untested systems are introduced with little planning or training and don’t work as expected.

Against each of these 6 key areas the HSE sets out a standard which can be used as a yardstick against which an employer can measure their performance.

In the next isue of BLE we will explain how the management standards that sit along side the 6 key areas of stress can be used by employers to prevent, control or mitigate the risk of stress amongst their workforce.

  • Proactive use will identify potential areas of stress in the organisation and allow the adoption of strategies and systems at preventing or reducing exposure to stressors.
  • Used as the basis of 'stress management' training for employees and managers the standards will help control work related stress.
  • They can also be used to help manage a situation where an employee has already developed the symptoms of work related stress. They can help identify the underlying cause and direct a programme or programmes aimed at helping an employee recover from illness.

Employers and managers who find that they fall short of the standards are able to identify the reason, take corrective action and so reduce the risk of stress among their workforce.

If your employees are suffering with stress and you need advice, just call the Advice Service on 0844 892 2785 and they will be able to provide the best cause of action for your business.

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