Free article: Managing work-related stress

Published: Tuesday, 18 April 2017

In this article, we take a closer look at what stress is and highlight considerations for those beginning a risk assessment for stress.

Summary

  • Stress is an excess of demand on the mind and body, for example a physical demand, a mental demand or both.
  • People are not all the same and we cannot assume that they can all cope with the same level of pressure.
  • Employers are required to deal with any risks to the health, safety and welfare of employees under the Health and Safety at Work, etc Act 1974.
  • Risk assessments to protect employees’ health should be carried out under regulation 3 of the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999.

Introduction

Stress can be defined as an excess of demand on the adaptive capabilities of the mind and body, for example a physical demand, a mental demand or both. It is important to understand that while stress is necessary and positive it can also be negative and harmful.

Pressure is a part of modern life, whether as a result of work, home or personal life. Most people are able to handle this pressure without any undue harm or problems, especially if it is only for relatively short periods of time or they can see a way of dealing with it.

We cannot assume that people are all the same and hence we cannot assume they can all cope with the same level of pressure. Nor can we assume that an individual’s ability to cope with pressure will remain at a constant level. People can be good at disguising the effect that pressure may be having on them.

The problem for the employer and any manager responsible for staff is the fact that the total amount of pressure any individual may be feeling at any one time is largely unknown and unpredictable unless specific efforts are made to understand and recognise the signs that indicate the underlying problem. This is exacerbated by the fact that additional pressure from work, while far more predictable and controllable by employers, may at any time create a stressful situation for any one employee.

Stress can hit anyone at any level of an organisation and research shows that work-related stress is widespread and is not confined to particular sectors, jobs or industries.

Legal requirements

There is no specific reference to stress in any of the health and safety regulations, but as in all such instances, the requirement to deal with any risks to the health, safety and welfare of employees is required under the Health and Safety at Work, etc Act 1974 and is explicitly required to be risk assessed under regulation 3 of the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999.

The fact that stress has been clearly recognised as a major risk factor to employees from a wide range of sources and related published information and data automatically translates into a requirement for employers to take such risk into account. In addition, the fact that the risks from stress cannot be evaluated effectively without full consultation with employees will fully invoke the Safety Committees and Safety Representative Regulations 1977 (SCSR, applicable to organisations with an active union) and the Health and Safety (Consultation with Employees) Regulations 1996 (CWER) for all other organisations. However, it should be said that these sets of regulations apply at all times and to all matters of health and safety.

Getting started

Stress is not a straightforward risk to evaluate, as it is not an immediately visible or tangible hazard. While it may not always be possible for anyone other than a medical practitioner or someone with specific training and expertise to accurately determine whether any given individual is actually suffering from stress, there are many signs and symptoms that can be indicative of stress that employers should recognise and consider in the first instance. As in keeping with general approaches and techniques to dealing with complex issues like stress, the initial approach is to determine in broad terms whether the problem is likely to exist before going into a deeper and more involved evaluation.

Understanding stress

In broad terms, most factors that can lead to stress are common to all people in all organisations, such as the degree of control they have over the various work requirements put upon them, the various social and work pressures that are put upon them and, most importantly, the tangible presence of support and understanding from others.

Whether positive or negative, physical or mental, the body’s reaction to stress can be described by three stages:

  1. Alarm reaction stage — at this initial stage the body identifies and first reacts to the stress and the body releases hormones that help in defending against the stressor.
  2. Resistance stage — the body continues to resist the stressors as they persist and if the stressors continue and there is a consistent state of resistance, there is potential to move into the third and final stage.
  3. Exhaustion stage — where the body and mind are no longer able to make the necessary adjustments to resist the stressors and there is physical and/or mental exhaustion.

It’s important to be able to recognise when stress levels are out of control. The most dangerous thing about stress is how easily it can creep up on someone; it can start to feel familiar, even normal, as it takes its toll. The signs and symptoms of stress overload can be almost anything. Stress affects the mind, body, and behaviour in many ways, and everyone experiences stress differently.

Stress risk assessment

A stress risk assessment essentially follows the same process as any other risk assessment except that the hazards are factors already known to contribute to work-related stress. The HSE describes work-related stress as ‘the process that arises where work demands of various types and combinations exceed the person’s capacity and capability to cope’. There are sound legal, ethical and reputational reasons for carrying out such a risk assessment. The process is described in INDG430 How to tackle work-related stress: A guide for employers on making the Management Standards work (HSE, 2009).

The factors which can cause or contribute to work-related stress are well known and documented. They are set out in a framework called the Management Standards. These HSE Management Standards list six factors that are known to contribute to stress at work:

  1. Demands (workload, work patterns and the working environment). In practice, there is a need to establish whether workload pressures are excessive and whether work patterns and the working environment are enabling employees to perform well whilst not putting their health at risk).
  2. Control (how much say a person has in the way they do their work. In practice, this looks at issues such as flexibility, having some choice or influence about, for example, the way work is done or when to take a break).
  3. Support (this includes the encouragement, sponsorship and resources provided by the organisation, line management and colleagues. In practice, this is broken down into peer support and management support).
  4. Relationships (this includes promoting positive working to avoid conflict and dealing with unacceptable behaviour. In practice, this is about identifying negative and potentially damaging behaviours that cause stress, such as bullying and harassment).
  5. Role (whether people understand their role within the organisation and whether the organisation ensures that they do not have conflicting roles).
  6. Change (how organisational change, large or small, is managed and communicated in the organisation).

Toolkit

Use the following item in the Toolkit to help you to put the ideas in this article into practice:

About the author

Bob Angel Bob Angel was a health and safety manager for a number of years, before setting up his own business as a consultant in 1998. Since then he has assisted a wide and diverse range of organisations with all aspects of their health and safety needs. He has also been an author and co-author of health and safety publications for Forum Business Media.

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