What is Work-related Stress, and Why do we Need to Tackle it?

There is a difference between stress and pressure. We all experience pressure on a daily basis, and 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. The definition of stress is ‘the adverse reaction a person has to excessive pressure or other types of demand placed upon them’. We can all feel stressed at times, when we feel as though everything becomes too much, when things get on top of us, or when we feel as though we are unable to cope. It affects us in different ways at different times and is often the result of a combination of factors in our personal and working lives.

Employees can get stressed if they feel they don’t have the skills or time to meet tight deadlines. Providing planning, training and support can reduce pressure and bring stress levels down. Stress affects people differently – what stresses one person may not affect another. Factors like skills and experience, age or disability may all affect whether an employee can cope. Stress is not an illness, but it can make you ill. Recognising the signs of stress will help employers to take steps to stop, lower and manage stress in their workplace.

Work-related stress can be tackled by working with your employer to identify issues at source and agreeing realistic and workable ways to tackle these.

What should I do if I’m becoming stressed?

Try to identify the causes and what you can do to make things better. Ideally, tell your manager at an early stage. If your stress is work-related, this will give them the chance to help and prevent the situation getting worse. Even if it isn’t work-related, they may be able to do something to reduce some of your pressure. If the source of pressure is your manager, find out what procedures are in place to deal with this. If there aren’t any, talk to your trade union representative or employee representative who can provide advice on a range of work-related topics. Alternatively, you can speak to your HR department or Employee Assistance Program, if either exists.

Many employees are reluctant to talk about stress at work, due to the stigma attached to it. They fear they will be seen as weak. But stress is not a weakness, and can happen to anyone. Remember: no employer should subject their employees to work-related stress, and this is an issue both you and your employer should take seriously. To help employers understand how to do a risk assessment for work-related stress, the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) has identified six key areas (or ‘risk factors’) that can be causes of work -related stress. These are:

  • the demands of your job;
  • your control over your work;
  • the support you receive from managers and colleagues;
  • your relationships at work;
  • your role in the organization;
  • change and how it’s managed

Your employer needs to gain a detailed understanding of what these risk factors look like where you work, identify which areas may be presenting problems, and work with employees and their representatives to take action to reduce these problems.

What role do I play?

As an employee you have a right to have your health and safety at work protected. To protect your rights at work you should:

  • Talk to your union/employee safety representative about your employer’s approach to the Management Standards. If you don’t have a union association you could also talk to your manager, a colleague, your HR department or someone you trust.
  • Help to develop and put in place effective plans by taking part in discussions or stress risk assessments.
  • Volunteer to attend discussion groups, action planning meetings etc.
  • Remember that consultation is a two-way process. Your managers need to take your opinions into consideration when deciding what actions to take, and must communicate the reasons for their decisions.
  • Decide on improvement targets and action plans, in consultation with staff or their representatives.
  • Attend any stress management training courses arranged by your employer, which will help you understand stress and how to deal with it.

How do HSE’s Management Standards Work?

To help with identifying risk assessment, HSE has produced its Management Standards (www.hse.gov.uk/stress), including targets for organizations to aim towards. There is one standard for each risk factor. ‘Demands’, for example, covers issues like workload, work patterns and the work environment, and includes guidance on what should be happening in your organization if the Standard is being achieved. The target is for all organizations to match the performance of the top 20% of employers that are successfully minimising work-related stress. This means your employer will need to:

  • Assess the risk and potential causes of stress within your organization – for example by looking at sickness absence records, or conducting specific stress-related surveys or focus groups;
  • Use these to assess how the organization is performing in relation to the six risk factors. This includes managers talking to their teams to identify stress ‘hot spots;
  • Decide on improvement targets and action plans, in consultation with staff or their representatives.

Adapted from: http://www.hse.gov.uk/pubns/indg424.pdf