Workplace Considerations - Is there a stress problem at work?

STRESS – it can impact any member within the business, at any level. Stress doesn’t differentiate between chief executive and cleaner, it is a harsh monster that must be controlled, attacking any industry from engineering, to ecommerce, public, private or non-profit. But what is the acceptable level or stress? What do we do when we’re heading towards breaking point with no sign of change?

Stressed dog
“The adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them at work” – The Health and Safety Executive’s formal definition of work-related stress.

This isn’t to say all pressure is stress. Stress is a particular state. Pressure is often used as a motivational influence, which can be essential to any job. At the end of the day deadlines are necessary and a pressure to hit these deadlines often goes hand in hand. It’s excessive pressure that becomes an issue. Are you under the constant threat of being sacked if you don’t hit a weekly target? Speaking from experience, not only does this not work – it is incredibly detrimental to the working environment.

Work-related stress is a state which develops over a period of time when a person, again it doesn’t matter where this person falls within the organisational hierarchy, becomes unable to cope. This leads to increased staff turnover, sickness absences and mistakes being made on the job. From this, a key take away is that you can’t predict exactly how, or even how severely stress will affect different people, one person’s stress is another’s pressure. This doesn’t make the person who is stressed weak or ineffective, only that different methods of motivation should be used.

It is advised that stress be treated as a hazard just as any other within the workplace. The bottom line is that we need to place an emphasis on the threat workplace stress poses. Leaders have a duty to ensure that the work we’re asking our staff to carry out doesn’t impact their own health or family lives. We work to live – not the other way around.


595,000 workers suffering from work-related stress, depression or anxiety (new and long-standing) in 2017/18 – HSE/ Labour Force Survey.


What causes work-related stress and what are the side effects?

We have two lists to follow, one of causes and one of side effects. So, to start with causes of work-related stress:

  • Excessive workload
  • Too many or unrealistic deadlines
  • Working long hours
  • Bullying from colleagues or management
  • Poor management in general
  • No control over working environment
  • Being unclear on your role
  • Being unclear of your key performance indicators
  • Wrong job for your skill set
  • Fear of being made redundant or sacked


Side effects of stress:

Mental and emotional side-effects Physical side-effects
Feeling that you can't cope Lacking energy or feeling tired
Hard to concentrate Diarrhoea or constipation
Lacking confidence Aches & pains
Being indecisive Headaches or migraines
Not committed to the organisation Chest pains or tightness
Feeling disappointed Gaining or losing weight
Depression Loss of sex drive
Anxiety Loss or increased appetite
Mood swings Tearful
Short tempered Sleep too much or too little
Overwhelmed Drink or smoke too much
Other side-effects
Rushing around to complete work
Missing breaks/lunch
Taking work home
Not enough exercise
Not spending enough time with family
Working too many hours
Presenteeism – reduction in productivity


In 2017/18 stress, depression or anxiety accounted for 44% of all work-related ill health cases and 57% of all working days lost due to ill health. – Health and Safety Executive


Treatment of work-related stress

Stress (at least that which is work-related) is a state which happens when the demands of your work exceed your ability to cope, so how do we correct that balance once it tips over?


Stress is a state, and not a permanent one. In order to track the problem, you must first understand the root cause of stress. While we appreciate that at this stage it is quite possible you can’t just eliminate the stress entirely, there are steps which can be taken.

Comfort – make your environment as comfortable as possible, this includes ergonomics.

Say no – don’t agree to additional work unless you’re absolutely sure it’s best for you. Politely explain why you’re saying no.

Take a break – everyone is entitled to their lunch and breaks, make sure you take yours and get outside if you can. Use your lunch break to help keep a balanced diet.

Stick to your hours – don’t be forced into overtime, by all means take on extra work when it’s right for you, but remember you work to live, not live to work. The correct work life balance is vital to living a happy and healthy life; make sure you spend time with your friends and family.

Work conversationDon’t become an alcoholic – while this sounds both blunt and extreme, it happens (30% of alcohol consumers are doing so because of stress according to the Institute of Alcohol Studies).

Earlier, we briefly mentioned the fact that a lot of us feel like we have no control over our lives, especially our working lives and while this is true, we should look to focus on the things we can control. For example if you work in sales and you have an uncapped commission structure, this is something you can control and something you can build on. Turn this focus into positivity about the future.

Share your experiences with a friend in the workplace. Chances are, there are others that feel like you do. I’m not encouraging bitching and moaning, but I’ve have found some of my best friends in my least favourite jobs. If you can develop good relationships with the people at work, everything will become a lot easier.

See your GP. Mental health issues are no joke. There are options available which your GP will be able to advise on, such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). You will also be able to learn other techniques such as breathing exercises or meditation.

Finally, speak to your employer. It’s definitely a difficult conversation, no matter how nice your boss may be (or not). But work-related stress is not a weakness and should not be seen as one. If your boss does take this stance, it is time to leave – no matter how good the pay may be.


15.4 million Working days lost due to work-related stress, depression or anxiety in 2017/18Labour Force Survey (LFS)


What does the law say?

This is a tricky one, while there aren’t any laws that specifically mention work-related stress, that doesn’t mean the law doesn’t apply. According to Unison, under the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 (in Northern Ireland under the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2000), employers must undertake risk assessments to look into the types and scale of risks and hazards faced by employees.

The second most applicable law, as mentioned by – the Working Time Regulations 1998 state that an employee is entitled to:

  • A maximum of 8 hours of work for night workers
  • A maximum of 48 hours per week, including overtime. This is averaged over 17 weeks – you are allowed to opt out of this
  • Daily rest period of 11 hours
  • If your shift is 6 hours or longer a rest break of 20 minutes
  • 4 weeks of paid leave per annum

Thirdly, the Sex Discrimination Act (1975) and Race Relations Act (1976). The legal liability of sexual and/or racial harassment falls to the employer as well as the perpetrator, even if the employer is entirely unaware it is occurring (


So as an employer, what should I do?

As an employer, you have a duty to ensure that the work you ask your team to carry out doesn’t make them ill, physically, mentally or emotionally. According to the Health and Safety Executive there are six main areas of work design which need to be addressed on the road to removing work-related stress:

  1. Demands
  2. Control
  3. Support
  4. Relationships
  5. Role
  6. Change

As an employer you should look at each area in turn to, with an accompanied conversation with your workforce. The HSE’s stress Talking Toolkit is a vital read for all employers looking to address stress concerns within their organisation.

Risk assessments are vital to all areas of health and safety, but a risk assessment involving stress isn’t always easy to get started, fortunately you can find example stress risk assessments here.


To sum up

Thanks for sticking with us and I hope you’ve enjoyed this post, a few final thoughts before you go. To me, probably the most important part of dealing with stress in the workplace is communication. If you are an employee struggling with stress speak out and ask for help. If you’re a leader who sees signs of work related stress, start having discussions about it – it will help morale and productivity.

Secondly, if you’re a leader who is struggling with stress yourself and the pressures of the role, it’s also absolutely vital you speak out. Delegate where possible and ask for help.


Speak Soon,
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