Managing stress at work
Updated: Dec 22, 2022
Employers have a legal duty to protect workers from stress at work by doing a risk assessment and acting on it.
What is stress?
HSE defines stress as ‘the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them’.
Workers feel stress when they can’t cope with pressures and other issues. Employers should match demands to workers’ skills and knowledge. For example, workers can get stressed if they feel they don’t have the skills or time to meet tight deadlines. Providing planning, training and support can reduce pressure and bring stress levels down.
Stress affects people differently – what stresses one person may not affect another. Factors like skills and experience, age or disability may all affect whether an worker can cope.
There are six main areas of work design which can effect stress levels. You should manage these properly. They are:
Employers should assess the risks in these areas to manage stress in the workplace.
Signs of stress
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.
How to help
The earlier a problem is tackled the less impact it will have. If you think that a worker is having problems, encourage them to talk to someone, whether it’s their line manager, trade union representative, GP or their occupational health team.
HSE Talking Toolkits can help line managers have simple, practical conversations with workers which can help prevent stress.
To protect workers from stress at work, employers should assess risks to their health. These example stress risk assessments may help.
You may need to develop individual action plans for workers suffering from stress. HSE’s Management Standards may also help you to identify and manage the six causes of stress at work.
2. Causes of stress at work
There are six main areas that can lead to work-related stress if they are not managed properly. These are: demands, control, support, relationships, role and change.
For example, workers may say that they:
are not able to cope with the demands of their jobs
are unable to control the way they do their work
don't receive enough information and support
are having trouble with relationships at work, or are being bullied
don't fully understand their role and responsibilities
are not engaged when a business is undergoing change
Stress affects people differently – what stresses one person may not affect another. Factors like skills and experience, age or disability may all affect whether a worker can cope.
By talking to your workers and understanding how to identify the signs of stress, you can prevent and reduce stress in your workplace.
3. Signs of stress
If workers start acting differently, it can be a sign they are stressed. Managers should look out for signs of stress in teams and workers, listed below. Think about whether the stress could be linked to work pressure.
Acting early can reduce the impact of pressure and make it easier to reduce or remove the causes. If managers are worried that a worker is showing some of these signs, they should encourage them to see their GP. These signs can be symptoms of other conditions. If there is something wrong at work, and this has caused the problem, managers should take action.
Signs of stress in teams
There may be signs of stress in a team, like:
higher staff turnover
more reports of stress
more sickness absence
more complaints and grievances
Employers must assess the risks of work-related stress in their workplace and take action to protect workers.
Signs of stress in a worker
A change in the way someone acts can be a sign of stress, for example they may:
take more time off
arrive for work later
be more twitchy or nervous
A change in the way someone thinks or feels can also be a sign of stress, for example:
loss of motivation, commitment and confidence
increased emotional reactions – being more tearful, sensitive or aggressive
Workers can help look after their own stress levels at work - if you think you have a problem talk to your manager, a colleague or your GP.
4. Stress risk assessment
Employers have a legal duty to protect employees from stress at work by doing a risk assessment and acting on it.
If you have fewer than five workers you don't have to write anything down. But it is useful to do this, so you can review it later, for example if something changes. If you have five or more workers, you are required by law to write the risk assessment down.
Any paperwork you produce should help you communicate and manage the risks in your business. For most people this does not need to be a big exercise – just note the main points about the significant risks and what you decided.
Employers may also find HSE's Management Standards helpful. The standards help identify and manage six areas of work design which can affect stress levels – demands, control, support, relationships, role and change. Our example risk assessments below show the kind of approach a small business might take. Use them as a guide to think through some of the hazards in your business and the steps you should take to control the risks.
5. Help for workers on stress at work
Spotting signs of stress
If you are stressed you may notice changes in the way you think or feel, for example:
being unable to concentrate
You may act differently, for example:
eat more or less than usual
smoke, drink or take drugs 'to cope'
have difficulty sleeping
If you are feeling signs of stress at work, it is important to talk to someone, for example your manager. If you talk to them as soon as possible, it will give them the chance to help and stop the situation getting worse.
If the pressure is due to what your line manager is doing, find out what policies are in place to deal with this. If there aren't any, you could talk to your:
trade union representative
worker assistance programme/counselling service if your company has these or
Many workers are unwilling to talk about stress at work, because of the stigma stress has. But stress is not a weakness and can happen to anyone.
What your employer must do
Your employer has a legal duty to assess the risks to your health from stress at work and share the results of any risk assessment with you. Your employer may follow HSE's Management Standards approach which help identify and manage the main causes of stress at work.
Help with stress caused by non-work issues
For help outside work, these organisations have useful websites or helplines you can phone for advice in confidence.