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April’s Employment Law Digest – How to identify and combat stress in the workplace

Since 1992 National Stress Awareness month has been recognised in April of each year. The aim is to raise awareness of the negative impact of stress and encourage an open conversation about the impact of stress and the effect it can have.

What is stress?

The NHS define ‘stress’ as being the body’s reaction to feeling threatened or under pressure. The HSE define ‘workplace stress’ as the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them at work. Experiencing a lot of stress over a long period of time can also lead to a feeling of physical, mental and emotional exhaustion, often called burnout. So it can quite easily, and often does, lead to poor mental health.

Why is this important?

Under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1975, every employer has a duty to take reasonable care of the health and safety of its employees, and a duty to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work of all his employees. This duty of care extends to the employee’s mental as well as physical health.

In 2021/22, the HSE reported that 914,000 workers were affected by work-related stress, depression and anxiety and an estimated 17 million working days were lost as a result of people being absent due to stress. In the same period, work-related stress, depression or anxiety accounted for 51% of all work-related ill health. These figures show that stress in the workplace is a widespread problem, and that it is likely that every worker will experience it at some point.

From a practical perspective, the consequences of work-related stress can include high levels of absenteeism, lack of engagement, low performance and lost productivity to name just a few. From a legal perspective breaching relevant health and safety duties may result in claims against the employer.

Stress, anxiety and depression increase employee turnover and presenteeism (where employees are present but not productive) and naturally impact growth, revenue, profits, and customer satisfaction.

Emily Pearson, Managing Director & Founder, Our Minds Work

While stress is a reaction or a response and will not normally amount to an illness itself, it may result in or be a trigger for illness. The effects of stress may manifest themselves in both mental conditions, such as anxiety and depression, and physical health problems such as heart disease or increased blood pressure. In certain circumstances therefore, work related stress can eventually result in a disability. By taking steps to manage stress and mental wellbeing at work, an employer will hopefully  be able to avoid an employee suffering from high levels of stress which could in turn result in a disability and will also go a long way towards ensuring it meets its obligations to make reasonable adjustments if an employee has already developed a disability following a period of work related  stress.

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Taking steps to reduce workplace stress is therefore a legal obligation and if done well should help keep employees in work, improve their overall health, reduce the money spend on temporary replacement to cover sickness absence  and result in increased productivity. Failing to deal with workplace stress could ultimately result in claims for constructive dismissal, or in some instances disability discrimination.

Stress is one of the biggest risk factors facing the people in every organisation. It is essential that business owners, leaders and managers take meaningful action on stress; to ensure workplace stress is not making people ill, and to empower people in their own wellbeing

Claire Russell, CEO, Mental Health In Business

How can you identify stress?

The following may be indicators that your employees are stressed:

  • A change in their behaviour and/or mood swings
  • Arguments between staff
  • High levels of staff turnover
  • Increased levels of sickness absence
  • Increased complaints and/or grievances
  • Uncharacteristic errors
  • Decreased performance
  • Loss of motivation, commitment and confidence.

The earlier a problem is identified and then dealt with, the less impact it will have on your business.

Undertaking stress risk assessments for each employee will help you to identify when an employee may be becoming stressed. Scheduling work meetings, appraisals or informal chats are also a good opportunity to find out more about problems employees may be facing. The Health and Safety Executive have produced a useful tool on stress risk assessments which can be accessed here.

There is sometimes uncertainty between the terms ‘stress’ and ‘pressure’. While challenges can produce pressure for staff, it is often healthy for them to have challenging targets to meet, as pressure can be beneficial in improving performance and job satisfaction. However, where there is too much pressure, it may result in stress and be harmful to an employee’s health.

Work-related stress, anxiety and depression are at an all-time high. The most common causes are workload pressures, including tight deadlines and too much responsibility and a lack of managerial support

Emily Pearson, Managing Director & Founder, Our Minds Work

Other causes of stress might be poor relationships with managers, colleagues or clients, or a lack of support and training for the jobs the employee is undertaking. According to the CIPD, the predominant cause of work-related stress in 2022 was workload, with 60% of people putting it in the top 3 causes. Employers should be conscious of ensuring employees do not become overworked and should ensure they keep an eye on their employee’s workloads.

How can you support employees?

Employers must assess the risk of workplace stress, and take action to prevent it. You must be mindful that stress affects people differently, and that their experience of pressure and when that can result in stress will vary.

Jobs should be designed to be within the employee’s capabilities, and adequate and achievable targets should be set. It is important that you address any concerns the employee may have about the work environment, and this will involve ensuring that there are relevant policies and procedures in place to support employees. It may be that making adjustments to an employee’s job could relieve stress symptoms and so employees need to know what support is available and how and when to access it. It is also important to create an environment where employees feel comfortable to speak up if they are feeling overwhelmed or stressed without the fear of it being viewed negatively.

Employers should also be aware that work-related stress may aggravate pre-existing conditions, making them more difficult to control, which may cause some employees to suffer more than others. As soon as you notice an employee is having difficulties, you should talk to them, and put in a form of action plan to reduce the stress they are facing.

In some circumstances it may be more suitable to seek external help for the employee, for example from someone from your employee assistance programme, occupational health team or their own GP.

Five top tips for supporting employees and managing stress:

  1. Manage the work environment and workloads
  2. Develop adjustments and coping strategies to support employees
  3. Be willing to have open discussions with employees if they are struggling
  4. Identify possible indicators of stress early
  5. Ensure employees know how and where to access support

...and five top tips for you as an individual to manage your own stress

Understand what is causing your stress

Rarely is it one thing, and when you know where your stress is coming from, it is easier to manage or make changes.


Talk about how you feel and what support you need. Ask for help when you need it, try to be specific when asking for help and don’t be afraid to ask for professional support.

Establish healthy boundaries

Be clear on your limits and say no when you need to. Communicate your boundaries clearly and reinforce them when you need to

Put energy into the fundamentals of health

Diet/nutrition, exercise and sleep. Be intentional in your self-care practice – make it part of daily life.

Develop your own stress management resources

Books, podcasts, mindfulness practices, journaling, friends who can provide support/listening. Your personal tool kit of things to help you manage the stress in your life.

Please note that this briefing is designed to be informative, not advisory and represents our understanding of English law and practice as at the date indicated. We would always recommend that you should seek specific guidance on any particular legal issue.

This page may contain links that direct you to third party websites. We have no control over and are not responsible for the content, use by you or availability of those third party websites, for any products or services you buy through those sites or for the treatment of any personal information you provide to the third party.

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