Pressure is something everyone experiences from time to time, and it’s a good thing. Feeling nervous before giving a presentation or attending an important work meeting can boost adrenaline which raises motivation, increases energy levels, and sharpens focus.
However, prolonged pressure in the workplace can have a detrimental effect on wellbeing. It can lead to stress and anxiety that impacts someone’s quality of life. It can affect their relationships, careers and so much more.
Here we talk about how to identify and recognise stress, the causes of stress at work, what practical steps you can take to prevent and manage stress and an employer’s legal duties.
How does the body react when we’re nervous?
Everyone is different, and although people respond to pressure situations in different ways there are a few common symptoms.
When we are nervous our brain sends signals to activate the sympathetic nervous system. This triggers the release of stress hormones, primarily adrenaline and noradrenaline, into the bloodstream, which can cause:
- Increased heart rate.
- Rapid breathing.
- Muscle tension.
- A feeling of butterflies in the stomach.
- Heightened alertness.
- Restlessness and a racing mind.
- Trembling or shaking.
These responses are designed to prepare the body to either confront the source of stress or flee from it. In modern times, this ‘fight or flight’ reaction can be triggered by various situations, not just physical threats, and the body’s response may not always be helpful.
Please read our article, How to spot the signs of work-related stress where we discuss symptoms in detail.
What is stress?
When someone is unable to cope with excessive pressures in their life, they can become stressed. The symptoms of stress can be behavioural, physiological, and emotional. Through observation and listening you may be able to pick up on signs of stress in others including:
- Impatience and/or aggressive behaviour.
- Inability to focus on day-to-day tasks.
- Constantly tired.
- Change in appearance.
- Reliance on alcohol or drugs.
- Social withdrawal.
- Poor timekeeping.
- Lower productivity.
- Poor decision making
If someone feels generally anxious all the time about a whole range of issues they might be suffering from generalised anxiety order (GAD) or another condition for which anxiety is a symptom, so it is advisable that they speak to their GP.
What are the causes of stress at work?
Stress at work has so many different causes and there may be more than one cause. For example:
- The fear of not meeting job expectations.
- Incorrect skills for the job.
- Being under stimulated because there is too little work, or the role is unchallenging. Boredom at work can cause as much stress as too much work.
- Feeling overwhelmed by work overload and juggling too many tasks.
- Conflict and workplace politics.
- A hostile or unsupportive workplace environment.
- Bullying and harassment.
- Fear of redundancy.
Stressors outside of work may affect someone’s emotional state in the workplace. For example, divorce, bereavement, caring for elderly relatives or a new baby, or financial concerns.
Why is it important for an organisation to manage workplace stress?
The total cost of work-related stress to the UK economy is a staggering £28 billion a year. Most of this cost is due to sick days being taken for stress and burnout.
Effective stress management can reduce the incidence of stress-related illnesses, resulting in a healthier, more present workforce. It also leads to lower employee turnover and the associated financial savings (the average cost of hiring a new employee is currently £3,000).
In addition, improving stress management benefits a business through increased productivity. The Workplace Health Report: 2023 conducted by Champion Health found that out of 2,200 UK employees, over 25% said their productivity had decreased in the last two years due to high levels of stress.
Properly managing stress in the workplace also mitigates the risk of litigation. When an employer fails to take action to reduce work-related stress they may be in breach of legislation, as detailed below.
Work related stress and employees’ rights
There is no single law that covers work related stress. However, there is legislation that places duties on employers to protect the welfare of employees.
Health and Safety at Work Act 1974
This legislation places a general duty of care on employers to ensure the health, safety, and welfare of all employees. Employers must ensure their workplaces are not detrimental to employees’ physical and mental health. Work stress is now a major health hazard in UK workplaces and therefore falls under the Act.
The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999
This regulation requires employers to assess and manage risks to the health and safety of their employees and others. Employers must take steps to identify hazards and address issues with suitable controls that may impact employees’ physical and mental health, and which are reasonably within their control.
The Working Time Regulations 1998
The Working Time Regulations limits the maximum number of working hours an employer canemployee work in a week unless there is an agreed opt out. It also covers rest breaks and annual leave entitlements to protect and improve the mental and physical wellbeing of employees.
Safety Representatives and Safety Committees Regulations 1977
Under these regulations, safety representatives appointed by unions have several legal rights including the right to investigate hazards in a workplace and take an active part in workplace risk assessments.
If stress is causing health and safety concerns in a workplace, safety representatives have the right to raise them and encourage employees to discuss issues with their supervisor or manager.
The Equality Act 2010
The Equality Act 2010 prohibits discrimination against those with protected characteristics. If stress is related to bullying and harassment on the grounds of race, gender or another protected characteristic an employer must take appropriate action and employees should raise issues with their supervisor or manager to find a resolution.
Under the Act, employers must take steps to prevent discrimination from occurring in the first place.
Assessing and managing stress in the workplace
The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development and the HSE (Health and Safety Executive) have developed standards to support employers to manage stress at work.
Whilst the Management Standards are not legally binding, employers are encouraged to follow them to create a happier, more productive work environment and to ensure they meet their legal duties.
The standards cover aspects of stress management such as:
- Creating a work-related stress risk assessment which identifies and assesses the risks in a specific workplace.
- Encouraging open communication between employers and employees about stress-related issues so improvements can be made.
- Ensuring workloads are manageable and realistic.
- Giving employees as much control as practical over the way they do their work and their working patterns.
- Promoting a positive working environment so everyone is productive, adequately challenged and experiences a sense of achievement.
- Ensuring positive behaviour is promoted to avoid conflict and ensure fairness.
- Making sure there are defined work structures, so employees know what their role is and understand how they fit into an organisation.
- Fostering a supportive environment where employees receive information and training and systems are in place to respond to individual concerns.
- When there is change within an organisation, ensuring it is communicated to all employees to prevent second guessing and hearsay.
- Ensuring employees are supported through any organisational changes and kept informed.
The standards recognise that managers have an enormous impact on stress in the workplace and are often in the best position to make a real difference.
Managing stress at work training
Our Stress Awareness for Managers course supports managers to fulfil their duties in the workplace. The course enables them to identify common causes of stress at work and implement practical solutions to prevent and minimise stress. They will also understand their legal obligations and how to apply HSE Management Standards.
Employees share a duty with employers to take a positive approach to managing stress. Our Stress Awareness For Employees course equips employees with the knowledge to recognise the symptoms of stress in themselves and others, to know how to prevent stress, and to develop effective strategies to manage stress.