Work-related stress

Last updated: 19 Dec 2023

With an increasing number of people experiencing work-related stress we explain what it is and how you and your employer can help you reduce it.

What is stress?

Stress is the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressure or other demands that are placed on them. People experience stress when they perceive an imbalance between the pressure they face and their ability to cope with it.

There is a distinction between pressure, which can create a “buzz” and motivate you, and stress, which is harmful. Stress is linked to mental and physical ill-health conditions, such as depression, anxiety and heart disease.

Stress has risen in recent years to become the most common work-related ill health condition. According to the Health and Safety Executive, the number of people experiencing work-related stress, depression and anxiety has doubled in the last ten years.

With effective management and staff engagement, work stress can be prevented and managed – just like any other health and safety risk. While in recent years there has been a growing appreciation among employers of the importance of addressing stress, too often measures are either perceived as tokenistic or fail to tackle the issues that are causing distress.

Mental health conditions are often considered disabilities for the purposes of the Equality Act, and people who have them may be entitled to reasonable adjustments. To find out more, please see our page on disability equality.


Symptoms of stress

Stress can manifest itself in different ways in different people. Sometimes we know right away that we are stressed. Other times it can take us a while to realise. If you are stressed, you may notice changes in the way you think, feel or behave. For example, you might:

  • be irritable
  • feel anxious
  • feel depressed
  • lose interest in things
  • struggle to make decisions
  • struggle to concentrate
  • avoid talking to others
  • become tearful
  • smoke or drink alcohol more than usual

It may also affect you physically. You might experience:

  • restlessness
  • headaches
  • tiredness
  • cramps, muscle spasms or pins and needles
  • high blood pressure
  • nausea or dizziness

Stress is not itself a health condition, but it can cause or worsen mental and physical ill-health conditions.

Research has demonstrated strong links between stress and physical conditions such as heart disease, back pain, headaches, gastrointestinal problems and various other illnesses. There are also strong links between stress and psychological conditions such as anxiety and depression, and it has been known to be a risk factor for suicide.


Stress risks at work

Stress can affect anyone, but the things that cause people stress can vary. However, there are well-recognised and well-evidenced causes of stress at work, including:

  • poorly-managed organisational change
  • poor work design and organisation
  • job insecurity
  • increases in the intensity and pace of work
  • high emotional demands
  • poor work-life balance
  • unfair performance management
  • long hours
  • inadequate social and organisational support
  • bullying and harassment.


How can employers manage stressful workplaces?

Employers have a moral and legal duty to protect members of staff by working out what factors at work could harm people’s health, and taking steps to prevent that from happening.

There are no health and safety laws that directly address stress. However, the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 places an obligation on all employers to prevent or reduce the risk of people being harmed at work, and this covers stress. Similarly, the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations require all employers to assess anything at work that could cause people harm, and this includes things that can cause people stress.

To do this, they need to understand the ways in which the working environment and people’s jobs cause stress and take steps to address them. The Health and Safety Executive has developed a useful method for managing work-related stress called the Management Standards.


The Management Standards

The Management Standards look at six key areas of work that, if properly managed, can help to reduce work-related stress. To a certain extent, these are the things employers need to target to tackle stress. They provide simple statements about good management practice in each area.

The six areas are:

  • Demands – these include workload, work patterns and the work environment
  • Control – how much say the person has in the way they do their work
  • Support – this includes the encouragement, sponsorship and resources provided by the organisation, line management and colleagues
  • Relationships – this includes promoting positive working to avoid conflict and dealing with unacceptable behaviour
  • Role – whether people understand their role within the organisation and whether the organisation ensures that they do not have conflicting roles
  • Change – how organisational change (large or small) is managed and communicated in the organisation.

The standards are goals that employers should work towards through risk assessment, worker involvement and continuous improvement.

They are particularly good because they offer employers a practical way to work with members of staff to prevent stress from occurring, rather than simply responding to issues that have already happened.

However, the list isn’t exhaustive. For example, change and restructuring, which are major causes of stress, are often associated with perceived injustices that adversely affect people.


If you’re experiencing workplace stress

If you are experiencing stress, consider whether you can:

  • Speak with someone you trust about how you feel
  • Speak to your Prospect health and safety rep, as they may be able to intervene. If they can’t help, they may know someone who can. Representatives will be in a better position to raise the problem with management – and get the problems tackled – if they know how many of their members are suffering and the problems that are causing it.
  • Keep in touch with colleagues, family and friends
  • Use the Management Standards to think through what stressors you are experiencing at work – is there anything we can change? Consider speaking to your line manager if there is
  • Move as much as possible. Make it as easy for yourself as possible – find an exercise you enjoy, or take “exercise snacks”, short bursts of exercise, such as walking up and down the stairs, or going for a walk at lunch time.
  • Find out how to contact your employee assistance programme, if your employer has one, typically from HR. You can usually access professional counsellors through these services.