Illustration of a stressed worker

Employers’ responsibilities for managing workplace stress    

16 May 2023    |    By: Nathan Bentley

Much like any other health and safety concern, the management of workplace stress falls under the responsibility of both the individual and the employer. Without collective awareness and team effort, managing stress within a workforce is a difficult task. It’s only when employers and staff work together that workplace stress becomes manageable, instead of a slippery slope which could lead to extended periods of absence from the workplace, or  perhaps worse in extreme cases.

Stress should be considered  as serious as any other physical work related injury. Unfortunately though there is a stigma attached to many mental health conditions which makes them difficult to talk about, especially when the time comes for that conversation to be had between an employee and their employer.

Regardless of how difficult these conversations might be, all employers’ have a legal duty to protect their workforce from stress, much in the same way they are also legally responsible from protecting their staff from other forms of harm.

The Health & Safety Executive (HSE) defines workplace, or work-related stress as:

“The adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them.”

Stress happens within a workforce when individuals are overwhelmed by a task or workload, it may be influenced by external pressures and could be worsened by things like; looming deadlines, financial pressure or even skill-fade. NHS England further defines stress and some of the symptoms that employees may experience when they are under excessive pressure at work:

“Stress is usually a reaction to mental or emotional pressure. It's often related to feeling like you're losing control over something, but sometimes there's no obvious cause. When you're feeling anxious or scared, your body releases stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. This can be helpful for some people and stress might help you get things done or feel more motivated. But it might also cause physical symptoms such as a faster heartbeat or sweating. If you're stressed all the time it can become a problem.”

An employers’ duty of care to their workforce and employees means that they need to take reasonable steps to ensure workplace stress is reduced. It’s also crucial that employees canhave an open and honest conversation about what is causing them to feel stressed. Employers’ need to take these conversations seriously and have measures in place which means they can efficiently deal with any issues which arise that could be causing stress in the workforce.

Mandatory risk assessments which consider physical risk should be in place in all working environments, however employers’ should also consider carrying out a stress risk assessment which takes into consideration stress risk factors and hopefully offers up contingency plans that aim to reduce stress risk factors. An example of this might be a policy which ensures employees are able to take regular breaks away from their place of work during the working day, especially if they work in a fixed location for long hours (such as a desk in an office).

As an employer you should always consider the risk factors associated with long term stress and the potential for stress related illnesses to occur, that’s why its paramount that upon early recognition of stress, you work with your employee to mitigate the stress they are experiencing by addressing their workload or working conditions, or whatever else it is that they deem to be causing the issue. Remember to listen to your employee and to offer a caring and empathetic approach. Some stress may only be temporary with the correct management approach, whereas long term stress can cause more significant consequences and ill-health for the individual affected, if stress isn’t managed appropriately.

Long term stress will have a very negative impact on your business, it may involve you having to place an employee on a long term leave of absence or could even involve your employee taking legal action against you if they believe negligence has led to their stress worsening. Long term absence may inevitably contribute to further stress when an employee is forced out of their routine and potentially into financial uncertainty. Ultimately, long term stress is not a very nice experience for the employee nor the employer and therefore steps need to be taken early on to ensure this doesn’t happen.

That’s why it’s so important for employers’ to recognise their responsibility to care for staff and to mitigate risk factors that could be causing stress. By having clear policies in place, regular risk assessments and a plan of action for individuals who are starting to feel stressed, employers’ can contribute to a happy workspace in which individuals feel cared for and feel that they matter. Crucially, by recognising and addressing stress early on, it has mutual benefits for both the employee and the employer who can work together to navigate what is hopefully a temporary period of stress, avoiding all the other issues associated with long term stress and other serious mental health conditions. 

The HSE website offers guidance to employers’ who want to understand how to manage workplace stress. Their ‘Talking Toolkits’ are designed to help people managers talk openly to their teams as part of a wider approach to managing work-related stress.

Talking Toolkits don’t have to be deployed in response to an individual feeling stressed, rather they exist to be used all of the time to ensure that employees always have an opportunity to comfortably raise a concern should they have one. This approach can be used during performance reviews, return to work interviews and one-to-one meetings. They can be utilised by managers and HR departments to help inform a wider workplace strategy to managing stress and can also help businesses to ensure they have access to the correct resources in order to be able to respond to stress concerns appropriately.

Additionally, the NHS England website offers signposting for further information and support to individuals who believe they are experiencing symptoms of stress. It may be useful to remind your employees of this so they can take steps to ensure they are accessing the correct care and services to help improve their mental wellbeing outside of the workplace as well as inside.

Nathan Bentley
Article by
Nathan is a content writer at Premierline with over 5 years’ experience, specialising in news and current affairs which impact small businesses across various industries. Nathan is passionate about discussing topics that affect the workplace, covering everything from human resources, to emerging and disruptive technologies. In the past, Nathan has written for a number of different businesses, working within a wide range of industries from financial technology to hospitality and even men’s fashion.
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