Stress at Work

  • Occupational Health
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Peninsula Group, HR and Health & Safety Experts

(Last updated )

In this guide, we'll look at what stress is, what the common signs are, and how to support employees suffering during work.

From time to time, employees may feel stressed during work hours. They could be going through a personal issue, or it could be related to their job.

Whatever the cause may be, it's important to support anyone going through bouts of stress. Not only is this your duty as an employer, but it'll also help create a happier and healthier work-life balance for your staff.

Be aware, if you ignore the signs of stress at work, it could lead to serious costs for your business. Like losing talented employees, facing negligence claims, and paying hefty compensation fines.

In this guide, we'll look at what stress is, what the common signs are, and how to support employees suffering during work.

What is stress at work?

Stress at work is a reaction that employees feel when they face challenging or excessive pressures from their workplace.

They may become stressed when they feel like they lack control or don't have the ability to do their job properly. Without the right resources (whether it's physical, financial, or even emotional), they're unable to cope with the demands of their work responsibilities.

Stress, along with anxiety and depression, is one of the most common symptoms linked to lost workdays. And it's not just mental health that's affected; work-related stress can also cause physical illnesses, too. Like, heart disease, muscle tension, and alcohol abuse.

Stressful situations can affect people in all kinds of ways - both in their professional and personal life. Despite that, it's important for employers to know how to support employees at work - helping them manage their symptoms in the best manner.

What are the signs of stress at work?

There are numerous signs of stress found in the workplace. It doesn't just extend to physical and mental health - it can also come from emotional, social, and even capability indicators.

As an employer, it's important to spot the signs of workplace stress and talk to those going through it. Let's take a look at the common signs of stress at work:

Physical health signs

  • Feelings of anxiety and depression.
  • Suffering from breathing issues.
  • Feeling lethargic, nervous, and sleep-deprived.
  • Losing or gaining weight.

Mental health signs

  • Going through mood swings.
  • Overreacting to major and minor issues.
  • Facing personality clashes with co-workers.
  • Having negative thoughts or fatalistic attitudes.

Social signs

  • Smoking more often.
  • Taking in higher consumption of alcohol and drugs.
  • Disregarding personal hygiene.
  • Causing self-neglect and harm.

Conduct and behavioural signs

Employers should be careful not to make assumptions when employees are experiencing stress. Instead, it's better to talk to them about what they're going through and see how you can offer support.

What is the law on work-related stress?

In the UK, there is no specific law that outlines work-related stress. However, there are relevant health and safety laws which are applicable.

Employers have a legal duty of care to safeguard their staff. That means you have an obligation to protect employees from workplace stress in the best way. This includes anything from using risk assessments to presenting an employee assistance programme (EAP).

With the right support, you'll be able to help them manage the physical effects of stress, as well as other factors. If you neglect support, you could cause low morale, increased turnover, and grievance claims. You could even end up paying compensation at employment tribunals.

Is stress a mental health problem?

In some cases, stress can be diagnosed as a mental health problem - and even as a disability. Employers must treat mental health conditions with the same importance as physical illnesses.

To class stress as a mental health disability, the condition must:

  1. Have a ‘substantial adverse effect’ on a person's daily life.
  2. Last at least 12 months (or is expected to).
  3. Influence their ability to do normal activities.

If an employee is diagnosed with a disability, they're legally entitled to reasonable adjustments that help them with normal work duties. This ranges from flexible working hours to quiet workspaces. In the end, it all leads to job satisfaction and better work-life balance.

How to manage stress in the workplace

Everyone goes through stress and pressure for all kinds of reasons. That's why there isn't one set-method used to manage it. Instead, employers should do their best to support those experiencing stress and help them control the triggers.

With the right effort, you'll be able to establish a healthier workforce and a happier workplace. Let's take a look at practical steps on managing stress in the workplace.

Create a work-related stress policy

The first step employers should take is creating a work-related stress policy. This policy is a statement on how your business promises to deal with stress management.

Your work-related stress policy should outline:

  • Approaching work stress and pressure.
  • Focusing on preventing the causes or symptoms of stress.
  • Assisting those who need additional support (i.e., like mental health sick leave).
  • Providing stress management training to line-managers.

Utilise the Health and Safety Executive (HSE)'s Management Standards

According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), stress is an 'adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures and demands placed on them'. That means stress can derive from any number of places within your work practices.

Employers should utilise the HSE's Management Standards approach to deal with workplace stress. Their standards outline six areas that affect stress levels - all of which you should do your best to control. Let's take a look at these areas:

  • Demand: For example, list what an employee’s workloads and duties are.
  • Control: For example, outline how much power or authority they have over their job.
  • Support: For example, check whether they have the resources to do their job well.
  • Relationships: For example, deal with conflicts to promote a positive workplace.
  • Role: For example, make sure they know what their role is within the business.
  • Change: For example, announce changes made to the business structure.

Manage stress with risk assessments

Stress can be managed properly with the help of risk assessments. These are a vital part of your workplace health and safety obligations. A work-stress risk assessment can help you spot the signs of stress at work and eliminate them from your practices.

For example, home workers often suffer from stress as they lack direct supervision from their line-managers. They often work long hours and neglect regular breaks - both of which can increase stress.

Employers should make sure home workers are spending time away from their desks, taking short breaks when needed, and logging out at the end of shift work hours. These steps will help relieve stress and pressure - resulting in healthier and happier employees.

Eliminate the stigma around mental health

As mentioned, stress is a mental health condition that can affect many people. In the workplace, it's hard to know who's suffering in silence.

That's why it's best to eliminate the stigma around work-related stress and other mental health conditions, like anxiety and depression. You should promote open channels of communication for employees to use.

For example, employees should be able to comfortably talk to their line-managers about work stress. Or use a system that allows them to seek support privately. In the end, open communication will help develop good relationships between all your staff.

Introduce an employee assistance programme (EAP)

Employers can also introduce an employee assistance programme (EAP) to help manage stress. EAPs are an employee-benefit system that helps staff gain perspective and support for work-related issues, like stress.

EAPs offer all kinds of services. For example, using a counselling service to speak about health issues; or joining focus groups to learn coping techniques that help reduce stress.

They can also offer tailor-made support - which is especially beneficial for employees who are reluctant to speak out about work stress or other health issues.

Can employees take sick leave for stress?

Yes, employees are allowed to take sick leave for stress. This would class as 'mental health sick leave'. In some cases, an employee will only need a couple of days of rest before they're well enough to work again.

Other times, they may need to take long-term sick leave. If an employee is on long-term sick leave for stress, you should manage their leave properly. Ask how they're feeling, whether they're likely to return to work, and how you can support them during this time.

If they decide not to return to work, you may initiate a medical capability dismissal. But this should only be used as a last resort and only in a fair, legal manner.

Is work stress and pressure the same?

No, work stress and work pressure aren't the same thing. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) does outline stress as an 'adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures'. This could be one reason why the two terms are often confused.

Stress is developed internally, whilst pressure is externally expressed. It's healthy for people to feel pressure from time to time. In a workplace setting, it can help employees make quick decisions or feel motivated to achieve their goals.

However, too much pressure can lead to physical and mental health issues. It's important to note that every person deals with pressure and stress in their own way. Whilst some people thrive under the feeling, others may struggle to cope.

Get expert advice on managing work-related stress with Peninsula

It's important to help employees to deal with any signs of stress at work. This includes identifying symptoms and promoting a comfortable working environment.

By doing so, you'll be able to protect employee well-being and welfare. If you fail to deal with work stress, it could lead to serious costs. Like losing talented staff, facing negligence claims, and paying hefty compensation fines.

Peninsula offers expert guidance on managing work-related stress. Our teams offer 24/7 HR advice which is available 365 days a year. We take care of everything when you work with our HR experts.

Want to find out more? Contact us on 0800 029 4377 and book a free consultation with an HR consultant today.


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