Work-related stress caused UK workers to lose 10.4 million working days in 2011/12. Stress is one of the most commonly reported causes of work-related absence cited in surveys, indeed data indicates that the performance of individual employees and the organisation as a whole can be improved by effective management of the main risk factors.
It is widely accepted that working is good for us. Pressure is seen as a positive, motivating factor, helping us perform and achieve our goals. However, employees experience stress when they perceive that the demands of their work are greater than their ability to cope.
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE)’s formal definition of work-related stress is: “The adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them at work.” Stress can affect anyone at any level of an organisation, in any workforce.
All employers have duties under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 and the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 to ensure the health, safety and welfare of their employees at work. This includes assessing the risk of stress-related ill-health arising from work activities and taking action to control that risk.
Stress affects people in different ways, depending on personality variables and coping behaviours. Individuals who believe they have control over what happens are likely to cope better than those who feel they have little influence.
Stress itself is not an illness but can have a variety of effects, such as headaches and elevated blood pressure. It can result in loss of motivation, indecision and impaired concentration and can trigger or worsen episodes of anxiety and depression. It can lead to behaviour changes, with increased smoking, drinking or drug taking ‘to cope’. At work it can cause low morale, errors, lower productivity, sickness, absence and staff turnover.
The key starting point to managing work-related stress is accepting that there is a problem to be solved in the first place. This involves securing backing from senior management and commitment from people at all levels within the organisation to work together.
The HSE has developed a Management Standards approach to help employers tackle work-related stress. The standards are simple statements that define good management practice, covering six key areas of work design that, if not properly managed, can lead to work-related stress:
• Demands – workload, work patterns and the work environment
• Control – how much say the person has in the way they do their work
• Support – the encouragement, sponsorship and resources provided by the organisation, line management and colleagues
• Relationships – promoting positive working to avoid conflict and dealing with unacceptable behaviour
• Role – whether people understand their role within the organisation and whether the organisation ensures that they do not have conflicting roles
• Change – how organisational change is managed and communicated
The six risk factors often overlap and interact and an approach mindful of this will produce the best results.
Work-related stress can affect any employee. Data should be gathered to identify problem areas, using a number of sources. This might include sickness absence data, employee turnover, exit interviews, productivity data, performance appraisals, informal talks, referrals to occupational health, and surveys.
From data gathered, identify hotspots and priorities. Engage with staff to understand issues from their perspective and explore problem areas further. Focus groups can then develop recommendations to address any gaps between current performance and the Standards.
Develop and implement action plans and set goals. Record what has been done and feedback results to all staff. It is important to ask your employees whether they feel solutions are working. Good stress management is an ongoing process of continuous improvement.
Line managers play a vital role in identifying and managing stress within any organisation. Many successful interventions are small and can be achieved at little cost, such as improved communication, line management development or policy