Occupational stress at work

Occupational stress is a workplace hazard in itself

Aside from being very unpleasant, it can cause knock-on effects within your business which include:

  • absenteeism and increased sick leave
  • negative impact on colleagues, line managers and customers
  • in severe cases, compensation claims or court cases for employers

For the employee concerned, persistent stress can lead on to:

  • mental illnesses like anxiety and depression
  • physical conditions such as heart disease and back pain
  • poor job performance

Clearly, it’s important to deal with stress as early as possible, for the benefit of all individuals concerned as well as your organisation.

Defining stress — isn’t it normal?

Challenges, deadlines and new experiences are a regular part of many jobs. But this isn’t the same as stress, which the HSE defines as:

‘The adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them at work.’

Stress isn’t a normal or healthy state, professionally or physiologically. And yet, 40% of surveyed employees stated that stress in their workplace had increased during the last year (source: CIPD 2015).

What causes stress at work?

Factors that can cause or contribute to stress at work include:

  • inadequate line management
  • organisational change (especially when badly managed)
  • non-work-related family issues
  • poor working relationships or bullying
  • pressure to meet KPIs or excessive workload

Some people will be able to cope with such demands without too much problem.

However, employees can become stressed when they don’t have the resources they need to cope, whether material, financial or emotional.

Helping employees affected by stress

The first step in helping affected employees is to acknowledge the problem. This can be challenging if someone shows few outward signs, for example if they are withdrawn or have physical symptoms.

After identifying the source/s of stress, it should be made clear that help is available. For example, you could provide access to counselling, reconsider the employee’s workload, or give financial advice.

Also, it’s helpful to tackle stress at the source. By dealing with it exclusively outside the office, you might exacerbate the issue by creating anxiety about coming into work.

Employee rights

There’s no one specific law regarding stress at work. However, it’s technically covered by a number of health and safety regulations and UK common laws. It’s therefore best that you:

  • look after staff and minimise stress in the workplace
  • keep up to date with recent cases, as laws regarding stress evolve quickly

If an employee ends up suffering from a mental health condition as a result of stress, their interests are covered by disability discrimination provisions in the Equality Act 2010. You would then need to make special provision to ensure the working environment is suitable for that particular condition.

Keeping stress at bay

There are simple steps you can take to proactively minimise stress in the workplace. For example, you could:

  • implement a wellbeing policy
  • work with line managers to improve awareness of symptoms
  • ensure all staff receive the support they need, especially in times of change or extra pressure
  • provide stress management training and clear procedures for dealing with stress cases

By taking a preventative approach, you’ll help create a safer working environment and shield your organisation from the detrimental effects of occupational stress.

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