Managing the Causes of Work-related Stress


For local business the latest annual report from the Health and Safety Inspectorate can make depressing reading with a reported increase in benefit claims due to workplace stress increasing from 38% in 2011 to 44% in 2012. This is roughly in line with the United Kingdom where stress accounted for 40% of work related illnesses in 2011/12; with woman between the ages of 35 and 44 being particularly at risk. It is probably no surprise that research has confirmed that job pressure, work related bullying and a lack of managerial support are the main causes of stress at work

Much of the effort in dealing with stress issues in businesses is centred round helping employees manage the stress they are already under using well-being programmes including a variety of approaches such as nutritional advice, gym membership and relaxation techniques.

Whilst these all have their place as part of an overall management programme, it would seem sensible for business to minimise any competitive disadvantages resulting from excessive stress and reduced employee commitment to work by managing the causes rather than dealing with the effects on employees.

The management standards’ approach developed by the Health Safety Executive provides guidance to do just that through a series of steps aimed at recognising, assessing and managing stress. As with any successful management initiative the key is planning, with on-going senior management commitment and a robust stress policy essential. If there is no commitment and only a hazy idea of what the company is trying to achieve, any resource allocated to stress will most probably be wasted.

The management standards focus on six areas which are associated with poor health and well being, lower productivity and increased sickness absence. These are:

  • Demands – workload, work patterns and working environment;
  • Control – how much autonomy employees have over the way they work;
  • Support – the encouragement and resources provided by the organisation, management and colleagues;
  • Relationships – dealing with conflict and unacceptable behaviour;
  • Role – clear understanding of job roles to avoid conflicts with colleagues; and,
  • Change – managing and communicating change.

A steering group, the size and makeup dependant on the size of the business, should be set up to manage the process. This is normally a good time to review any Stress Policy or guidance to make sure that it clearly sets out what the company intends to do and to make sure that line managers, who may be uncomfortable of dealing with stress issues, understand that consistent and fair implementation of policy is important and that they also have support.

The next stage is to gather information to identify who in the organisation might be at risk. This can come from a variety of sources including sickness absence records, departmental turnover, performance appraisals, surveys and simple observation. The information gleaned from this process will give some indication of issues which should be explored in more detailed by consultation in small groups. This will not only confirm that the initial assessment was correct but will also provide opportunities to discuss possible solutions. Consultation can be the most difficult part of the management process as further problems may be identified. Therefore, sufficient time should be given to this part of the process to find out when problems started, how things might be improved and how changes can be monitored sensitively.

From these meetings Action Plans can be developed for the business to set goals and decide on priorities. Once implemented, the plans should be monitored and evaluated against previous stress data, and may include further surveys, remembering to continually give feedback to the employees.

This all sounds fairly straightforward but maintaining momentum is not easy as stress can be a difficult issue to discuss openly. The charity Mind recently reported that there was a significant difference in the perceptions of managers and their staff about how stress was tackled, with over two thirds of managers believing that they were supporting staff compared to about a fifth of employees who felt their managers took active steps to help them cope. This may go some way to explaining why the average absence due to stress in the UK is 24 days.

For more information about how H&S@Work can help your employees manage stress, please contact

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