Last reviewed on 31/10/2016 16:08

We've put together some advice on the causes of stress in the workplace and how you can avoid or deal with its effects.

There's also some information on your organisations' legal duties and obligations relating to work related stress and links to further information.

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Good practices

What is stress?

The Health and Safety Executive defines stress as "the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressure or other types of demand placed on them".

There is a difference between stress and pressure. We can all experience pressure on a daily basis - in fact - some might say we need it to motivate us and enable us to perform at our best. It's when we experience too much pressure, without the opportunity to recover, that we start to experience stress.

Everyone can feel stressed – it might be when we feel as if everything becomes too much to handle. It could be when things get on top of us and we feel like we're unable to cope with the demands placed on us, both at home and at work.

Stress can affect different people in different ways and is often a result of a combination of factors in both our work and personal lives.

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Why is stress a workplace issue?

All employees within an organisation can be vulnerable to stress depending on the pressure they are under at any given time.

Stress can be caused by work as well as by personal issues and problems outside the workplace (e.g. financial or domestic worries). Whatever the cause, stress can leave employees feeling unable to cope with the pressures of work - often resulting in poor performance.

Recent studies indicate that:

  • Work related mental health problems, including stress, accounted for 9.8 million working days lost.
  • Mental health problems at work cost Scottish employers over £2 billion a year.
  • On average, every person suffering from work related stress took 27 days off work for that period of illness.

Research has also shown that work related stress can have adverse effects for organisations in terms of:

  • employee commitment to work
  • staff performance and productivity
  • staff turnover and intention to leave
  • attendance levels
  • staff recruitment and retention
  • customer satisfaction
  • organisational image and reputation
  • potential litigation.

More than half of the Scottish workforce is employed by a small or medium sized enterprise. The impact that work related stress has on small units or teams can be more prevalent than in larger organisations. Losing just one colleague for an extended period with a stress related illness can have a dramatic impact on the workload and morale of the rest of the team.

There is now convincing evidence that prolonged periods of stress, including work related stress, have an adverse effect on physical and mental health and well-being.

Stress can also lead to behaviours that are harmful to health, such as skipping meals, drinking too much caffeine or alcohol, or smoking.

Mental and physical ill health represent personal losses to individuals and costs to organisations, whether through sick pay for those who are absent from work or by poor performance from those who attend work.

By taking action to tackle the causes of stress in your workplace, you can prevent or reduce the impact of these problems for your organisation.

Successful programmes of workplace stress management have seen a significant reduction in sickness absence and staff turnover – good news for the employer and employee alike. Staff morale improves, people feel valued and the overall result is a healthier and safer working environment.

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Legal duties, obligations and the management standards

All employers have a legal responsibility under the Health and Safety at Work Act (1974) and Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations (1999) to ensure the health safety and welfare at work of their employees.  This includes minimising the risk of stress related illness or injury to employees.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) in 2004 developed the Management Standards.  These Standards represent a set of conditions that, if present, reflect a high level of health, wellbeing and organisational performance.

Although the Standards contain no laws, Enforcing Authorities have the power to act against employers who do not take steps to reach the Management Standards.

The Management Standards cover six key areas of work design that, if not properly managed, are associated with poor health and wellbeing, lower productivity and increased sickness absence.  In other words, the six Management Standards aim to address the primary sources of stress at work.  These are:

  • Demands - workload, work patterns, work environment and training.
  • Control - how much say the individual has in the way they do their work.
  • Support - the encouragement, sponsorship and resources provided by the organisation, line management and colleagues. This can also include their work life balance.
  • 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, large or small, is managed and communicated within the organisation.

Employers have a duty to ensure that risks arising from work activity are properly controlled.  The Management Standards approach helps employers work with their employees and representatives to undertake a risk assessment for stress.

The Health and Safety Executive expects organisations to carry out a suitable and sufficient risk assessment for stress, and to take action to tackle any problems identified by that risk assessment.  One way to address this might be to use the one of the Work Positive resources. Work Positive is Healthy Working Lives stress risk management tool and is endorsed by the Health and Safety Executive.

Line managers

Line Managers and Supervisors play a key role in minimising the risks to the wellbeing of staff.  The Health and Safety Executive and the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development have developed the Line Manager Competencies. These four competencies explore the behaviour and sub-behaviours that are required to develop management practice that minimises the risk of stress for staff. For more information on the Management Competencies visit the Preventing Stress website. It contains the tools and advice needed to increase awareness of your own management approach. You'll be asked to complete a questionnaire about your management behaviours and to get feedback from someone else on their perception of your behaviour.

'Work Positive' – the stress risk management tool

When managing health and safety in the workplace it can be useful to get feedback from staff on their health needs and what they see as risks to their health and safety at work. Carrying out a stress risk assessment is one of the best ways to find out if stress is a problem amongst your workforce.

Work Positive, developed by Healthy Working Lives, is one of the Health and Safety Executive's recommended tools for stress risk management.  The resource is designed to support workplaces to address stress using evidence based surveys. Work Positive has a range of resources including a fully online survey tool, producing automated reports to the employer. Other resources include:

  • Stress Risk Assessment Form: This form is recommended for individual and team-level stress risk assessment, or at organisational level in very small workplaces.

You can access the Work Positive Stress Management Tool at the Healthy Working Lives survey site: Work Positive Survey

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Good practice around occupational stress

Employers can manage stress in the workplace by taking steps to reduce the risk of their employees experiencing stress in the first place, and by supporting those who do encounter stress.

Meanwhile, individuals can act on a personal level within their home and work environments to reduce the sources of stress and to combat its effects.

Not all employers will have the time or resources to introduce all the examples listed below, especially in small organisations. However, the principles of how to control and manage stress still apply and all employers have a legal obligation to take work-related stress seriously. Employers can:

  • Promote self help - Steps for Stress offers support and advice on dealing with stress
  • Provide regular activities or events highlighting the impact of stress and how to cope better
  • Offer stress management, relaxation or discounted access to leisure facilities
  • Offer training in stress awareness, management and resilience
  • Ensure stress risk management processes are in place and backed up by policy
  • Provide access to employee assistance programmes and an occupational health service

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Further information on stress in the workplace

Work Positive - A comprehensive site that guides managers through the stress risk assessment process and methods of managing and controlling stress in the workplace.

Free, telephone CBT support in Scotland

Living Life is a free telephone support service that anyone can access.  The service offers us help to understand some of the reasons why we might fee low, address negative patterns of thinking and find new ways of coping.  It is available across Scotland and can be accessed either by GP referral, or by phoning the number directly on 0800 328 9655.

HSE Work-related Stress pages (external site) These pages from the Health and Safety Executive provide advice on stress at work for individuals and employers, full details of the Management Standards for Tackling Work-Related Stress and download links for many useful tools, including sample policies and stress risk assessments.

The Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) (external site) ACAS provides confidential help on all employment matters. Telephone the ACAS Helpline on 08457 47 47 47 or visit the ACAS website (external site).

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Supporting employees on long term sickness absence

Fit for Work Scotland is a free, confidential advice and support service to help manage long term sickness absence. Employers worried about their employees and GPs concerned about their patients can, with consent, refer them to the service (online referral is quick and easy). Provided by NHS Scotland the service offers expert support, assessment and back-to-work advice.

Visit Fit for Work Scotland or call the Adviceline to discuss your options 0800 019 2211.

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