The Health and Safety Executive defines stress as “the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them” at work.
The Labour Force Survey found that in 2016-17, stress, depression or anxiety accounted for 40 per cent of all work-related ill health cases and 49 per cent of all working days lost due to ill health.
When we read about workplace stress being on the increase, we know it’s about more than just that momentary frustration you feel as you watch the photocopier eat your document.
While stress may not normally amount to an ‘illness’ in itself, it can result in or be a trigger for other illnesses, its effects being shown in physical and mental conditions such as anxiety and depression, and in physical problems such as heart disease.
It is healthy for staff to have challenges to meet. Some pressure can have a beneficial effect in improving performance and job satisfaction. Too much pressure, though, can hurt.
Unhappy relationships with a manager, colleague or client can result in long-term or chronic stress. Lives outside work can be stressful too, or can compound pressure at work and result in stress.
So with all this stress around, what can we do about it?
It can be tricky to identify staff under stress (particularly when an employer might not be aware of the causes if factors external to the workplace are involved). Some signs include:
- performance issues (declining or inconsistent performance, uncharacteristic errors, loss of control over work, loss of motivation or commitment, indecision, lapses in memory, increased time at work, lack of holiday planning or usage)
- withdrawal (arriving late, leaving early, extended lunches, absenteeism, resigned attitude, reduced social contact, elusiveness or evasiveness)
- regression (crying, arguments, undue sensitivity, irritability or moodiness, over-reaction to problems, personality clashes, sulking, immature behaviour)
- aggressive behaviour (malicious gossip, criticism of others, vandalism, shouting, bullying or harassment, poor employee relations, temper outbursts)
Minimising staff stress
ACAS’s guidance on promoting positive mental health at work sets out various factors which it suggests managers can control when it comes to mental health at work. These include workload, work variety, work relationships, involvement, an open culture, communication and taking steps to prevent bullying.
Steps for employers on minimising stress include:
- implementing ‘stress audits’ or employee surveys seeking employees’ feedback on their concerns in respect of stress
- having return-to-work interviews after sickness absence etc, to identify any underlying stress-related reason for absence or poor performance
- training managers to recognise situations which are likely to cause stress, to identify the symptoms of stress and on how to manage stress
- implementing a ’stress at work policy’, which should make it clear that the employer takes the issue seriously (and should be backed up with actions). The policy should also set out guidance on how employees should deal with the effects of stress and how they can raise concerns
- consulting employees, employee representatives or unions on organisational changes
- avoiding unreasonable demands being made of employees by prioritising workloads and appropriately delegating duties
- providing support through an employee assistance programme, occupational health service, or providing independent, confidential counselling
- reasonable adjustments to job roles and working conditions to accommodate disabled employees or reduce causes of stress, where possible and necessary
- implementing a workplace wellbeing programme which recognises the three elements of wellbeing and encourages a culture of self-help, where possible
An employee complaining of work-related stress may consider bringing a claim against his or her employer. A range of potential claims exist, and the issues can often become complicated and legalistic. Questions such as to whether medical conditions caused by stress have a substantial and long-term adverse effect on an employee's day-to-day activities and therefore may amount to a disability (giving rise to protection under the Equality Act 2010) are beyond the scope of this article, but are likely to provide the biggest headache for employers.
Heena Kapadi is a solicitor at HRC Law