What is workplace stress?

Workplace stress, while common, can become a serious issue that affects you, your employees and co-workers.

If left unchecked, workplace stress can lead to illness or exacerbate existing conditions. It’s therefore essential you take care of yourself whether you’re self-employed, working for someone else, or a mix of both.

This guide contains tips on how to keep your stress levels down at work, and also advice on how to create a stress at work policy for your employees.

What’s the difference between stress and pressure?

We all experience pressure in the workplace. It’s actually a good motivator for getting things done and staying productive.

But when we begin to feel like we’re under too much pressure, we can become stressed.

Stress is defined as “the adverse reaction [people have] to excessive pressure or other types of demand placed on them” by the Health and Safety Executive.

What are the signs of stress?

While it’s different for everyone, common signs of stress include:

  • Feeling irritable, impatient or wound up
  • Having difficulty relaxing
  • Low energy and/or a low mood
  • Physical complaints like headaches, upset stomach and other aches
  • Frequent colds and infections
  • Tension, including rapid heartbeat and muscle pains

You can read more about the signs of stress on the Mind website.

How stress affects the workplace

Evidence suggests that stress, either caused by work or by personal issues, have a negative impact on:

  • Performance and productivity
  • Attendance
  • Quality of work
  • Customer service
  • Colleague relationships

If it isn’t handled properly, stress can affect an employee’s commitment to their job, and ultimately negatively impact on staff turnover.

Stress at work policy

As an employer, you have legal responsibilities under both the Health and Safety at Work Act (1974) and the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations (1999) to ensure the health and welfare of your employees.

Mental health and illnesses caused by workplace stress are included in this. When creating a stress at work policy, your best point of reference is the Management Standards introduced by The Health and Safety Executive in 2004.

These Standards are not legally binding, but Enforcing Authorities can act against employers who do not take sufficient steps to reach them.

HSE’s Management Standards

There are six areas covered by HSE’s Management Standards:

  • The way demands are handled, such as those relating to workload, work patterns, environment and training.
  • How much control an employee has over their own work.
  • The degree to which encouragement, sponsorship and resources are provided by the company, management and colleagues e.g. maintaining a healthy work life balance.
  • The way in which unacceptable behaviour is treated and positive relationships are fostered.
  • How well employees understand their role within the organisation.
  • How effectively organisational change is managed and communicated within the company.

If these aren’t properly managed, this can lead to lower productivity, decreased health and wellbeing among the workforce and increased sick leave.

Creating a stress in workplace policy

As an employer, you should first look at reducing the risk of employees experiencing stress. Make sure you’re adhering to the HSE’s Management Standards as best as you can and offer support to those who are stressed.

There are a number of ways you can do this:

  • Provide regular activities or events that highlight the impact of stress
  • Hold regular 1-2-1s with employees to see how they’re getting on
  • Offering training in stress awareness and management
  • Offer opportunities for relaxation or stress management

Employees should also be empowered to reduce their sources of workplace stress and its impact. Employers should encourage and support self-help where possible. Employees can tackle their stress by:

  • Balancing their workload and work/life balance
  • Asking for help when they need it
  • Taking short breaks or time off work (like holidays)
  • Developing good relationships with colleagues

The HSE expects companies to carry out suitable risk assessment for causes of stress.

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