Managing Stress at Work

Stress at Work Comes to the Fore in 2020

Management Standards are vital to deal with the workplace crisis

Managing Stress at Work

STRESS in the workplace is a major issue that still too often remains buried beneath a twin-layered cloak of stigma and denial.  However, its huge impact upon individuals and its importance as a key factor in productivity is being recognised progressively in Britain as well as globally.

Among the many shattering consequences of coronavirus which continue to fall heavily on all of us, the effect of stress upon individuals in particular has been graphically documented and highlighted. At home and at work, our mental health and wellbeing is labouring under greater daily pressure than for many previous generations as a result of this seismic event.

History will record 2020 as a seminal year in human society. It remains to be seen whether it will precipitate a new approach towards mental health. Collective trauma may yet prove to be a powerful catalyst for establishing greater understanding to provide more effective help at individual level. But it is worth noting that prior to these current extraordinary times, a mental health crisis has already been building rapidly in our working lives.

Modern day methods of working and the growing demands placed upon people on an endless basis thanks to mobile and internet communications mean that stress is as much a factor in health and safety in the workplace as any visible hazard. Unless we pay close attention to job design, work organisation and overall management, there is always a real danger that workers are going to suffer from the excessive levels of stress which lead to mistakes, illness and long-term absence or departure from employment.

There has been greater recognition in recent years of the need to deal with workplace stress. Evidence can be seen in the growth of corporate health and wellbeing programmes over the past decade, initiatives such as the development of ‘mental health first aid’ which was introduced into the UK in 2007 and the steady rise of an industry promoting health and wellbeing for people at work as part of a wider holistic approach.

But the fact is that official figures portray a significant picture of soaring rates of work-related mental health issues. This crisis is continuing to escalate at an increasing pace.

Cases of work-related stress, depression and anxiety

Work-related stress in Britain is quantified in statistics published annually by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). These make for alarming reading and arguably represent only the tip of the iceberg. The latest figures for 2018/19 show that:

  • The total number of cases of work-related stress, depression or anxiety was 602,000. This compares with 440,000 only four years previously.
  • The total number of working days lost as a consequence was 12.8 million. This compares with 9.9 million only four years previously.
  • Stress, depression or anxiety accounted for more than 42% of all work-related ill health cases and more than 54% of all working days lost due to ill health.
  • The main factors cited as causes of stress, depression or anxiety were workload pressures, threats or bullying, changes at work and lack of managerial support.

HSE defines stress as “the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressure or other types of demand placed on them.” It also points out crucially: “Stress can hit anyone at any level of the business. Recent research shows that work-related stress is widespread and is not confined to particular sectors, jobs or industries. That is why a population-wide approach is necessary to tackle it.”

Workers not willing to reveal or discuss mental health issues

The true underlying extent is undoubtedly more substantial, given an embarrassed reluctance on the part of some individuals to admit suffering from stress or depression and either overt or covert denial by some employers that such problems could even exist within their organisation.

Studies carried out by the mental health charity, Mind, reveal that fewer than half of employees diagnosed with a mental health condition have told their employer. And only 41% of employees say they would feel able to talk openly with a line manager if they were experiencing stress.

It is vital that businesses recognise the challenges and adopt a positive approach which, among other things, will encourage line managers to acquire sufficient knowledge and training so that they can better understand their roles in this highly sensitive area of management.

Management Standards for Work-Related Stress

Clearly, there is a requirement for a framework within which wellbeing policies and procedures relating to stress can be implemented. And in the UK, it exists in the robust form of the HSE’s Management Standards for Work-Related Stress*. These exacting standards represent what HSE describes as “a set of conditions that, if present, reflect a high level of health, wellbeing and organisational performance.”

The management standards define “the characteristics, or culture, of an organisation where the risks from work-related stress are being effectively managed and controlled.” The standards cover “six key areas of work design that, if not properly managed, are associated with poor health and well-being, lower productivity and increased sickness absence.” They represent the “primary sources” of stress at work.

The six management standards therefore come under the distinctive headings of Demands, Control, Support, Relationships, Role and Change. Each of these standards requires that systems are in place locally to respond to any individual concerns. According to HSE, the management standards “demonstrate good practice through a step-by-step risk assessment approach” and allow up-to-date assessment using surveys and other techniques as well as “promoting active discussion and working in partnership with employees.”

HSE concludes that the standards help to simplify risk assessment for work-related stress by identifying the main risk factors for work-related stress, helping employers focus on underlying causes and prevention, and “providing a yardstick by which organisations can gauge their performance in tackling the key causes of stress.”

An organisational approach to work-related stress is essential for success. And the HSE’s management standards approach provides the foundation for a full strategy which incorporates policies, procedures, risk assessments, management training and continuous monitoring to enable an employer to maintain its moral and legal obligations as well as ensuring that its business reaps the benefits in terms of cost savings and greater commitment and productivity from employees.

Management standards at the core of mental wellbeing

Current recommendations by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) put the management standards at the core of its philosophy for mental wellbeing at work. NICE also makes it clear in its recommendations that companies and organisations should “ensure line managers are aware that supporting employee health and wellbeing is a central part of their role, for example by including it in line managers’ job descriptions and emphasising it during recruitment.”

In all cases, the management standards provide employers and organisations with a ready-made framework for workplace stress management.  They are at the core of mental wellbeing policy and the evidence is clear that they can have a huge commensurate benefit to the business ‘bottom line’.

* HSE Management Standards for Work-Related Stress …

Steve Bennett is the Director of Safety Delivery. Give him a call on 0208 408 1560 or email to find out how your business or organisation can manage work-related stress, implement the management standards, and achieve recognition and accreditation.

Safety Delivery provides exclusive health & wellbeing training courses to enable businesses and organisations to improve stress management and implement the standards. Details can be found at


Pic - Managing Stress at Work 1

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