How to Manage Stress in the Workplace

Stress is one of the most common causes of workplace absence and can seriously impact your business. Here’s how to manage it

How to Manage Stress in the Workplace

Erroneously considered by some to be part and parcel of modern life, workplace stress is no joke as a business owner; affecting employers and employees alike, stress can lead to poor productivity, bad decisions and a lowering of morale generally.

Learning how to recognise and deal with stress and its causes can bring myriad benefits as an employer, so it is important to know how to recognise the tell-tale signs of stress, common causes of it and how to manage it effectively.

How important is managing stress?

Dealing with stress and its causes effectively is an absolutely crucial skill as an employer, as the consequences of ignoring it can be severe. A 2012 survey carried out by CIPD found that a quarter of employers in the UK said that stress was one of the top five causes of employee absence – and Health and Safety Executive (HSE) figures back this up with an estimated 10.4 million work days lost in 2011/12 due to stress.

Stress can also directly lead to a high levels of turnover, which in turn increases your recruitment and training costs and causes disruption in your business. It can also cause employees to make bad decisions as stressed worker is less likely to take an objective, considered view of a situation and may end up making poor decisions that affect your business in important matters, such as negotiating with suppliers.

Other serious effects that can be caused by stress are the deterioration of workplace relations and long-term illness. People who are stressed out are not easy to get on with and severe stress can cause increased levels of sick leave and has been known to force employees out of work altogether through mental health issues such as severe anxiety or depression.

Finally it could lead to legal trouble. As an employer, if you are causing the workplace stress in some way (or fail to address it), there is a risk that an employee will take you to court and even if you win, the cost of litigation can be enormously expensive.

How do I recognise stress in the workplace?

Firstly, it is important to note that stress is not the same as pressure. Pressure may be one of the causes of stress, but stress describes the negative reaction to events from outside, which may be one of a number of things.

There are some tell-tale signs you can look for to spot stress amongst your employees. It may manifest itself in their behaviour and signs to look for include inability to concentrate or to ‘switch off’ from work, constant fatigue, change in mood, a drop in the standard of work, more sick leave, a dread of coming into work and a refusal to take breaks or constantly staying late.

Severe stress is also known to manifest itself through physical symptoms. In particular, you should look for unexplained nausea or headaches, poor sleep and nervous behaviour patterns such as shaking.

Common causes of workplace stress

Stress can come from a huge variety of sources, and you should consider all of the below when trying to find the root cause of stress.

Particular causes of stress to watch out for include excessive demands at work, poor training or instructions, long hours, office relations, poor management style, change in the business such as redundancies or simple alterations to the way you do things, insufficient clarity or uncertainty of their role in the company, and finally personal issues.

How do I tackle the causes of workplace stress?

When you have identified the causes, you need to take concrete steps to address them. Nipping the causes of stress in the bud will see your stock rise amongst your employees and result in a more positive, productive workforce. Some steps you could take include:

Reduce demands at work

Set goals that are SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, time-limited). Encourage employees to tell you if they feel they are struggling with workload, and encourage effective delegation amongst staff. If necessary, train staff in time management techniques.

Avoid long hours

Encourage people to take frequent breaks, and take a permissive attitude to holidays. In particular, encourage people to take an actual break for lunch, rather than just eating at their desks.

Improve workplace relations

Draw up and publicise a policy on bullying and harassment, setting out what you consider to be unacceptable behaviour. Tell employees they can come to you or another employee you designate to discuss issues in confidence.

Improve your management style

This could include regular performance appraisals, learning how to communicate with employees, and learning how to motivate employees. Directly deal with stress in the workplace by regularly surveying levels of stress amongst staff and putting in place a stress policy to enable you to deal with problems.

Keep employees in the loop during times of change

Ensure they know why changes are taking place and how they might be affected. Arrange meetings to canvass input on new projects or proposed organisational changes, and encourage two-way communication by welcoming feedback, ideas or opinions.

Write down clear job descriptions

Ensure people understand their roles by clarifying what exactly their job involves.

Support employees undergoing personal difficulties

You could offer them time off, or consider flexible working  arrangements to help them manage their problems.

How do I put procedures in place to manage stress at work?

First of all, read up on your legal responsibilities. Health and safety law gives you responsibility for the occupational health of your employees and requires you to take measures to minimise extraneous causes of stress at work. Also make sure to conduct a ‘stress risk assessment’ of your business. Follow the six-step process outlined on the Health and Safety Executive website. You can use questionnaires to conduct the assessment, or simply talk to staff about their experience.

Make sure to draw up a stress policy, base it around this model stress policy, again found on the HSE website, and train managers in managing stress – make sure they understand the importance of minimising stress and have a clear idea of their own roles and responsibilities in doing so. Finally offer employees access to counselling.

Where can I go to get help in managing stress?


Read this booklet on stress at work for a good overview.

The Health and Safety Executive

The HSE website has a comprehensive range of resources on stress, follow the link for more information.


The chartered body for health and safety professionals offers courses to help business owners with stress management. For more information, check out the company website here.

The International Stress Management Association

This is a charity that produces the ‘Charter for Wellbeing and Performance’ along with advice for employers on how to implement it. For more on the organisation in general, check out its website here.

Stress counselling services

Both the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy and the Employee Assistance Professionals Association offer one-to-one counselling for employees.

The Mental Health Foundation

A charity that campaigns to raise the profile of mental health issues. Check out its website here.

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