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05th March 2015

Managing stress at work

headacheOne of the leading causes of sickness absence is stress at work. A worker can experience stress in the workplace at any stage during their working life. Stress can gradually build up during the working week due to work pressures, or non-work-related life events can impact on a person within the workplace. Recognising the signs of stress is the first step to deciding the appropriate action to take. Stress can affect a person’s ability to carry out work in a productive manner. Chronic prolonged stress can impact on physical and mental health , and can cause conditions such as ulcers or, in some cases, depression.

Stress impacts on individuals to varying degrees. Everyone copes with, and reacts differently to stress. To some people, a certain amount of stress is what makes their role interesting, but excessive workplace stress can interfere with a worker’s ability to cope. Their capacity to deal with stress can mean the difference between being productive at work, or not.

Some stress is good as it heightens ability in the short-term, due to the release of the naturally-occurring performance enhancing chemicals like adrenalin and cortisol. If it is continues for too long, the stress-related chemicals and stimulation will weaken a person's body, and their coping mechanism declines. In extreme cases it can cause Cumulative Stress Disorder or other mental health issues.

Facts and figures about the impact of stress

The Stress Management Society reports the following facts:

‘Stress affects one in five of the working population from the newest recruit in the post room to the board of directors.
Over 105 million days are lost to stress each year – costing UK employers £1.24 billion.
For every £1 you invest in staff well-being, there's a return of £3 in improved efficiency and productivity.’

The causes of work-related stress generally are:

  • Not having control over the demands of the work
  • Doing a job for which the worker has not received the right amount of instruction, information, training and supervision. If a worker is competent at carrying out a role, they are more confident at work
  • Not having enough time to do the job
  • Having too much to do and no one to delegate to
  • Not having the right tools or equipment to carry out the job safely and efficiently

The symptoms experienced by a worker with stress can fall within the following areas:

  • They no longer feel they have the ability to cope with work, and as a result can become anxious, irritable or depressed
  • They may notice that stress is impacting on their home life, and may have problems sleeping
  • They may be restless and have trouble concentrating on a task. They may need to take more frequent breaks from their work activity
  • They may lose interest in their work and have difficultly focusing
  • They may experience headaches, aches and pains caused by muscle tension
  • They may start to become reliant on alcohol or drugs to cope
  • They may develop anger management problems linked with inability to cope, and this may impact on family and colleagues
  • They may have less interest in meeting with friends and family and may withdraw socially

Recommendations for the workplace on tackling stress

  1. Develop a Stress Risk Assessment Review to assess and understand if there is a stress issue in the workplace.
  2. Develop a stress management policy, so that managers and employees know what to do to identify stress at work and manage the outcome for all involved
  3. Carry out a stress risk assessment on any worker who reports stress at work, and ensure recommendations are actioned
  4. Ensure workers are communicated and consulted with on work changes that may affect them, such as redundancies, changes in management and changes in work roles
  5. At induction, ensure workers understand their role and that they have a person to discuss difficult problems with
  6. Listen to employees and hear what they are saying – don’t cut them short or jump in to offer solutions. Give them ample time to express their concerns, and then discuss supportive solutions
  7. Develop practical appropriate stress management solutions to eliminate, reduce and manage stress at work
  8. Consider having a company stress awareness workshop for managers and other staff, so that they can educate employees in the many techniques available to help them cope better with stress
  9. Through posters and other media, give information to the workforce on how to relax, and encourage them to eat a balanced diet, take regular exercise and drink less caffeine
  10. Using different media, teach good practice coping strategies, such as adopting good time-management techniques, taking breaks when required and focusing on work rather than company issues.
  11. By supporting necessary changes, enable workers to feel empowered in their role and confident about succeeding in the completion of tasks.

QCS Policies

QCS has stress risk assessment guidance and policies to support your organisation to identify stress at work, and assess its impact. In the next article we will look at the areas to review when carrying out a stress risk assessment at work.


HSE – Management standards for stress at work
Health and Safety at Work Act 1974
The Management of Health and Safety at Work (Amendment) Regulations 2006
Stress Management Society - About Workplace Stress

Sally Beck RGN, BSc (Hons), MSc, CMIOSH – QCS Expert Health and Safety Contributor

Topics: Health & Safety

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