How to deal with work-related stress

Written by Rob McGreal, HSE’s work-related stress policy lead

It will come as no surprise to many of those reading this that the latest statistics from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) suggest work-related stress is on the increase. 595,000 workers across Great Britain have suffered from work-related stress, depression or anxiety in the last year and were the cause of 57% of all working days lost to ill health (around 15.4 million days).

Primarily, work-related stress has been linked with sectors like education, health and social care, local authorities and government departments, but new research suggests that small and medium-sized businesses (SMEs) are not immune. The research shows nearly half of workers in these businesses have quit their jobs because of work-related frustrations and stress.

So, what exactly is ‘stress’ and what causes it?

There are a number of definitions for the term ‘stress’ but HSE defines it as “the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them.”

Our definition makes a distinction between ‘stress’ and ‘pressure’, the latter can act as a motivator and can be considered good for us. However, when this pressure builds, and becomes excessive over a sustained period, with little or no recovery time, stress can develop. If stress is not managed or dealt with, it can lead to serious mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression, as well as physical health conditions including stroke, diabetes, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), heart conditions and obesity.

Choosing the right approach for your business

With rising levels of work-related stress, an industry creating solutions with a focus on ‘wellbeing’ has built up; promoting things like mindfulness and personal resilience; many companies are creating wellbeing strategies based around meditation and yoga as a result, or encouraging employees to just ‘eat better and exercise more’ as ways to manage their stress.

While these may provide some therapeutic value for an individual, they do not prevent other workers from being affected by work-related stress caused by the same stressors, nor do they stop the individual already experiencing stress from becoming affected further. This is because these ‘solutions’ do not remove the root cause, they do not address, nor do they remove the work stressor(s) and therefore cannot and do not solve the wider issue of organisational work-related stress.

It’s also crucial SMEs realise that such stress coping techniques will not work if employees are repeatedly put back into the same toxic job, doing the same tasks, under the same pressures. By doing this, all that will happen is that the problem will continue to grow, and it will continue to produce an adverse reaction. However, if SMEs work to remove the cause, this will help reduce work-related stress for the individual and protect other staff who are doing the same work.

Managing organisational workplace stress in a SME

Employers must take health risks as seriously as safety. HSE has launched its Go Home Healthy campaign which places work-related stress as one of its three priority areas. We are proactively reaching out to employers to raise awareness of their legal duty to assess the risk from work-related stress. SMEs must take action to tackle any identified risks, and HSE is working to highlight the practical measures which businesses can take to prevent and manage work-related stress.

If you identify work-related stress as an issue within your business, the key thing is to act. Talk to  your staff to find out what and where those issues are, and together develop practical  solutions – they are the experts after all.

One of the practical measures you could use is our Management Standards approach, which has been designed to help all employers, including SMEs and larger businesses, to prevent and manage work-related stress. This considers stress on the basis of six key areas of work:

  1. Demands: workload, work patterns and the work environment.
    • Talk about work loading with your team and develop work plans;
    • Make plans for avoiding pressure at expected busy times and holiday periods; renegotiating targets if there’s too much work;
    • Ensure everyone understands their role and has the necessary skills and equipment to do it.
  1. Control: how much say the person has in the way they do their work.
    • Talk about levels of control;
    • Allow staff a level of control over what they do and how e.g. the pace of the work;
    • Involve staff in decision making where it affects their role.
  1. Support: the encouragement and resources provided.
    • Provide constructive feedback;
    • Take into account people’s home situation; be flexible where people need time for hospital appointments, allow phased return from long-term sickness absence;
    • Hold regular team meetings and discuss issues that may be causing problems.
  1. Relationships: promoting positive working to avoid conflict and dealing with unacceptable behaviour.
    • Have a policy for what behaviour is expected which clearly identifies unacceptable behaviour;
    • Have a process for reporting such behaviours;
    • Be aware of staff that may need additional support e.g. lone workers.
  1. Role: whether people understand their role within the company.
    • Provide clear job descriptions and keep these updated;
    • Explain how each role fits into the organisation and contributes to its goals;
    • Avoid conflicting or competing demands or targets.
  1. Change: how organisational change is managed and communicated.
    • Consult with staff at an early stage and keep talking throughout;
    • If individuals will be affected talk to them directly, get their views and ideas and explain timescales;
    • Let staff know the purpose of the change and what it will achieve.

To complement and build on this approach, we have also created a new, free-to-download Talking Toolkit to help start the conversation – a vital first step towards preventing work-related stress, and developing the actions and stress risk assessment employers need to comply with the law. This toolkit is a useful resource which can be provided to line managers to help them start to have simple, practical conversations with employees. The toolkit is not, by itself, enough to make an employer compliant – it will give a lot of information about potential stressors and the need to tackle them as far as is reasonably practicable.

Our website also has a series of sample risk assessments for SMEs and a blank template that can be used to develop an approach for tackling stress in such workplaces.

These tools help employers focus on the underlying causes of stress and how to prevent or tackle them. The key to managing work-related stress is engaging with your workforce to get to the root of the issue, identifying the key stressor(s), and working collaboratively to agree and implement practical solutions.

It’s important to remember that stress can affect anyone at any level, so if you are experiencing a problem, speak to someone – a friend, your manager, GP or occupational health team.