From 2014 to 2015, around 440,000 people in the UK experienced work-related stress. That equates to 40% of all work-related illness, according to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). In fact, the World Health Organization predicts that stress and depression will become the second leading cause of worldwide disability, by 2020.

What is stress?

The HSE define stress as a person's reaction to extreme demands and pressures put on them. Stress can manifest itself in a variety of symptoms, with some more serious than others. These might include palpitations, a pounding heart, dry mouth, aches, pains and headaches. Also, many people lose interest in hobbies and activities, suffer from insomnia and lose their appetite. One in five visits to a GP are due to stress, anxiety and depression.

What causes work stress?

While a certain amount of pressure at work can feel motivating, if it gets excessive, then it can become stressful. Work-related stress can severely impact on health and often associated with high levels of sickness absence and staff turnover. Furthermore, stressed out employees are more likely to make mistakes on the job too. Stress can hit anyone at any time and at any level of the business. And in any job, sector or industry too. The main causes of work stress can include:

  • Demands and pressures made on employees.
  • Amount of control employees have over how they do their job.
  • The support, or lack of, from managers;
  • The lack of clarity regarding an employee's role in the organisation.
  • Relationships at work, including incidences of bullying.

Identifying work-related stress

There are a number of ways employers can identify stress risk factors. Having informal talks with staff, performance appraisals and return to work interviews following sickness absence. Also reviewing sickness absence data, performance data, turnover rates and employee questionnaires.

How to manage work stress

Good stress management in the workplace is critical to employees' overall health. A key skill for staff managing their own stress is for them to feel confident enough to say no. If a person takes on too much and then fails to deliver, it can become disastrous for everyone long-term. Therefore, employers should empower their staff to be able to speak up if they're struggling with their workload. Under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, employers have a duty to ensure the welfare of all employees. This includes conducting risk assessments for work-related stress. If it isn't work that's causing the stress, employers should still look at what they can do to help. Reducing some of the pressure at work can make a big difference to an employee while they deal with their problems outside of work.

Reducing workplace stress

Many employers admit to feeling less comfortable dealing with employee mental health problems than physical disabilities. Therefore, managers should receive training on how to identify and manage common mental health problems, along with people skills training. Here are some important tips to help employers make sure that their organisation guards against workplace stress:

  • Employees should feel valued and involved in their organisation. Managers should have open lines of communication with staff.
  • Make jobs flexible and adaptable to suit a person's circumstances; from home working arrangements to job sharing.
  • Employers should always consult with employees on changes that could affect them before they happen. Encouraging staff to ask questions before, during and afterwards, also helps them feel included in the process.
  • Tackle absences sensitively. Help people back to work with the appropriate health services, like occupational health and return to work interviews.
  • Provide employee assistance programmes, like confidential face-to-face or telephone counselling.
  • Employers and managers should set a good example to their staff. From actively promoting a good work life balance, to taking lunch breaks and using their full holiday entitlement.

If an employee is struggling to cope with stress, then employers should encourage them to see their GP.

Reducing workplace stress is good for business

Losing valued staff because of stress can become very expensive. From absence time to a potential disability discrimination claim, if they believe their employer contributed to their condition. It's crucial that businesses create a genuinely supportive culture within their organisation. Providing managers with good training will help them to recognise the warning signs of stress. But also, importantly, it will help managers understand how they can communicate with employees about stress. When workers receive the appropriate support, they will likely make a quicker recovery and return to work much sooner.

An article by HR Solutions, providers of practical HR advice