The Health and Safety Executive define stress as ‘the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressure or other types of demand placed on them’. This makes an important distinction between pressure, which can be a positive state if managed correctly, and stress which can be detrimental to health. Companies must be committed to protecting the health, safety and welfare of their employees, and recognise that workplace stress is a health and safety issue and acknowledge the importance of identifying and reducing workplace stress.
Employers have a legal duty to protect employees from stress at work. The law requires employers to tackle stress, under the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999, (to assess the risk of stress-related ill health arising from work activities) and also under the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974, (to take measures to control that risk). HSE expects organisations to carry out a suitable and sufficient risk assessment for stress, and take action to tackle any problems identified by that risk assessment.

Mental health is about how we think, feel and behave, one in four people in the UK will have a mental health problem at some point. Common mental health problems (CMHPs) tend to be short term and are normally successfully treated with medication by a GP. Work related stress and (CMHPs) often go together. Anxiety is feeling worried, uneasy or fearful a lot of the time, some people find it hard to control their worries, their feelings of anxiety are more constant and often affect their daily lives. Anxiety can have both psychological and physical symptoms.

Depression is more than simply feeling unhappy or fed up for a few days, it is when you feel persistently sad for weeks or months. It affects people in different ways and causes a wide variety of symptoms ranging from lasting feelings of unhappiness and hopelessness, to losing interest in the things you used to enjoy and feeling very tearful. There can be physical symptoms too, such as feeling constantly tired, sleeping badly, no appetite and various aches and pains. Many people with depression also have symptoms of anxiety and these are the most common mental health problems.

Work related stress is a significant problem, with 40% of all cases of occupational ill health in the UK reportedly caused by work related stress, depression or anxiety. As well as being a significant cause of ill health among workers, causing major distress for those affected and their families, harmful levels of stress can also affect an organisations performance and finances. Over twelve million working days were lost due to stress, depression or anxiety in 2016/2017. The main work factors cited as causing stress, depression or anxiety were workload pressures, in particular tight deadlines, too much work or too much pressure or responsibility, lack of managerial support, organisational changes at work, violence and role uncertainty (lack of clarity about job).

Tackling stress prevents ill health, there is now convincing evidence that prolonged periods of stress, including work-related stress, have an adverse effect on health. Research provides strong links between stress and physical effects such as heart disease, back pain, headaches, gastrointestinal disturbances or various minor illnesses and psychological effects such as anxiety and depression. There are six main areas of work design which can affect stress levels, they are:

Stress is not an illness, but it can make you ill. Recognising the signs of stress will help employers to take steps to stop, lower and manage stress in their workplace. To protect employees from stress at work, employers should assess risks to their health. Many employees are reluctant to talk about stress at work, due to the stigma attached to it, they fear they will be seen as weak, but stress is not a weakness and can happen to anyone.

Empathy and trust are a platform for effective understanding, communication and building relationships. They are essential factors to develop solutions, avoiding or diffusing conflict. Establishing trust is about listening and understanding, not necessarily agreeing (which is different) with the other person, listening without judging. A useful focus to aim for when listening to another person is to try to understand how the other person feels, and to discover what they want to achieve. Of all the communications skills, listening is arguably the one which makes the biggest difference. Both management and employees foster trust by listening to what each person has to say. Management and employees should practise consistent behaviour. Consistency allows everyone in the company to know what to expect from the job and from each other.

Source: HSE, working together to reduce stress at work, a guide for employers.
Source: HSE, Management standard for tackling work-related stress.
Source: RoSPA OS&H Journal.

Links to managing stress indicator tools.
Researched by Andrew Gardiner

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