An employers guide to work-related stress

What proportion of work-related illness is due to stress? It might be more than you think. 

According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), stress, anxiety and depression accounted for 51% of all work-related illnesses in 2021/22, making it one of the leading causes of absence and poor productivity.

Work-related stress is when work pressures become more than someone can cope with – perhaps because of long hours, or a heavy workload, or conflicts at work. And it’s essential as an employer to understand how it can have a massive impact on an employee’s physical and mental health, so it doesn’t end up affecting things like your business’ safety, recruitment, employee retention, and productivity. 

With 914,000 cases of work-related stress, depression or anxiety in 2021/22, 17 million working days were lost. So let’s take some steps to address that. Here’s your guide to identifying, minimising, understanding and managing workplace stress.


How to identify stress in the workplace


Want to know how to identify stress in the workplace? Here are a few tips. 

Signs of stress at work come in many different forms. They’re not always obvious, which is why it’s important to have the right measures in place to help you and your managers to recognise them – like Mental Health First Aiders or regular 1:1 catch-ups.

When you’re looking out for signs of stress in your employees, there are many key indicators (but bear in mind that these happening as a one-off won’t necessarily mean they’re suffering from stress). Here are some signs that could indicate your employees are stressed (if it is a change in the way they usually act):


  • Taking more time off work
  • Arriving for work later
  • Become more twitchy or nervous

A change in the way someone thinks or feels can also be a sign, for example:


  • Mood swings
  • Being withdrawn
  • Loss of motivation, commitment and confidence
  • Increased emotional reactions (being more tearful, sensitive or aggressive)

There are also signs you can look out for that could suggest your team is stressed, for example:


  • Arguments
  • Higher staff turnover
  • More reports of stress
  • More sickness absence
  • Decreased performance
  • More complaints and grievances

Don’t forget, there’s always going to be pressure in the workplace and it can cause some low levels of stress, but when an employee’s health, wellbeing, and performance starts to suffer, then it’s a sign to take action.


How to minimise workplace stress


So what’s next? Once you feel like you’re able to spot signs of employee stress at work and that the managers in your business can do the same, it’s time to lay out a plan for how to minimise workplace stress. Here are some ways you can reduce employee stress:


  • Do a stress risk assessment
  • Communicate regularly with employees
  • Keep their workload manageable
  • Set clear, achievable goals for your employees
  • Follow the HSE’s six management standards for stress

There’s no beating around the bush, stress risk assessments are a must. Legally, it’s up to employers to protect their employees from stress at work by doing a stress risk assessment and acting on it. They help you identify the potential causes of workplace stress, and implement effective controls so that you can take the steps you need to reduce stress in your workplace.

How often do you communicate with your employees? Other than asking how their day is going or what tasks need doing? Good, effective communication is about building a work culture where things like stress can be discussed openly or in regular sessions.

Figures from the HSE showed that before the coronavirus pandemic, the predominant cause of work-related stress, depression or anxiety from the Labour Force Survey (2009/10-2011/12) was workload, particularly tight deadlines, too much work or too much pressure or responsibility. So let’s change that to help you build a happier and more productive team!

Clarity is fundamental. Without it, you get confusion and stress. So, by setting clear, achievable goals for your staff, they’ll know exactly what they need to do. Want to find out how you can do this?


Understanding the impact of stress in the workplace

Understanding the impact of stress in the workplace is so important – and not just the impact on your people, but also your business. You may see a range of physical and psychosocial stressors in your workplace, which can drastically reduce an employee’s productivity and efficiency.

Physical stressors

Risk factors such as loud noise, ergonomic issues, poor workspace layouts, ventilation and lighting can affect your employees’ wellbeing and, ultimately, your bottom line. These can lead to the following:


  • High physical stress 
  • Increased employee absenteeism
  • A disengaged, unmotivated team
  • Decreased productivity 

But it’s not all doom and gloom. You can make positive changes to improve your work environment to reduce these physical stressors. 


Psychosocial stressors

These are risk factors that may affect workers’ psychological responses to their work and workplace conditions (including working relationships with supervisors and colleagues). Do your workers have much control over their work? Do they believe they’re not a part of decisions that will impact them? Do they think that their workload is too much? These can all be classed as psychosocial stressors.

In the workplace, psychosocial stressors can lead to:


  • Lower employee performance (hitting productivity and efficiency)
  • High staff turnover (damaging your reputation and budget)

How to manage stress-related employee absences

It’s common for stressed employees to take periods of sickness absence. When this happens, the next steps are all about how you can support them to return to work. 

The question is: How do you manage stress-related employee absences? We’ve explained how valuable communication is, and it’s no different in these circumstances. Whether they’re absent long-term or short-term, keeping in regular contact through things like welfare meetings means you can check in and start discussing ways to help them get back to work. 

Of course, if someone is suffering from stress they may need some time without any contact in order to recuperate. So make sure each situation is considered independently, and get medical advice if you need to. 

On the other hand, there could be times when an employee is absent, and it doesn’t look like they can return to work. This is when dismissal could be considered as an option. 

We always advise that this is a last resort, and you should always seek professional advice. In such a sensitive situation, guidance is needed so you’re sure they’re being dismissed correctly. Otherwise, there could be claims brought at an employment tribunal. 

Managing stress-related absences is one thing – but how do you reduce them? This is where stress risk assessments are effective. Doing a stress risk assessment helps you better manage stress in the workplace by giving you a structured way to spot any stressors or risks and put controls in place to manage them.


What to include in your workplace stress policy

Creating a stress policy for your business? Good plan. It’s a great way to show your staff how you’ll protect and support them and provide guidance regarding roles, responsibilities and processes. 


Let’s revisit the HSE’s six management standards, which you can use when considering what to include in your workplace stress policy.


  • Demands: Do employers have realistic expectations regarding employees’ workload? 
  • Control: Do employees have a say in their work patterns? It’s not about letting people do whatever they want, but giving them the freedom to do their work in the best way they see fit. 
  • Support: Support plans are your best bet for helping staff suffering from stress. By providing them with resources, advice, and guidance, you’ll help them get back to their usual self. 
  • Relationships: Daily interactions make up a big chunk of a person’s day-to-day life, which is why it’s essential to build a work culture that promotes positive behaviour and the equality and inclusion of everyone. 
  •  Role: What process do you have in place to allow people to raise that they’re uncertain about their role? A clear process helps reduce confusion and build a stress-free, more productive environment. 
  • Change: Change can be highly stressful for some employees, and it’s crucial to remember that you play a critical role in helping staff to adapt to the changes.

How you can support your employees dealing with work-related stress

Looking to support your staff? You’ve come to the right place. Our combined Health and Safety and HR & Employment Law package gives you 24/7 support and advice with everything from stress and well-being to HR consultancy, risk assessments and contracts, so you can focus on what you do best. After all, 85% of our clients believe they have a happier, healthier, more productive workplace from working with us!

We can also get you ISO 45003 (Psychosocial Health & Safety) certified in no time. Looking to support your team further? Our Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) provides 24/7 access to trained counsellors over the phone whenever you need support!

Please call 0345 844 1111 or contact us to find out more.


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