11 Apr 2024

Stress Awareness

April is Stress Awareness month and the theme this year is #littlebylittle. We are going to share some tips to help navigate both yourself and colleagues through stressful times. Stress can impact both individuals and organisations significantly so it’s really worth taking some time to see what can be done to reduce stress and support you and your employees.

Part one: What does stress look like?

Whilst a certain level of stress can help some people to remain motivated and is not in itself a recognised illness, it can still have an impact on someone’s mental and physical health. If excess stress is not managed effectively it can lead to other conditions such as burnout, anxiety and depression. It can also lead to physical symptoms such as back or skin problems.

Stress could be caused by something that has occurred (or is occurring) outside of work (for example a bereavement, divorce, menopause or another significant life change) or inside work (for example by conflicting priorities, too heavy a workload or bullying).

Things to look out for both in yourself and others include:

  • Difficulty in concentrating.
  • Tearfulness.
  • Tiredness.
  • Finding it hard to make decisions.
  • Low mood.

If you or a colleague seem stressed, then it can be helpful to have an informal chat to help gain an understanding of the problem and what can be done to support them. Quite often, the small positive action of having a brief conversation about it and coming up with a simple action plan will make a huge difference.

Part two: Stress and the law

Although stress is not an officially recognised illness, there are two parts of legislation that mean that it should not be ignored in the workplace.

  • The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 – puts a 'duty of care' on employers to protect their employees from the risk of stress at work
  • The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 – requires all employers to make a 'suitable and sufficient assessment' of the risks to the health and safety of their employees at work

In addition to this, employers should ensure that they are adhering to the requirements of the Working Time Regulations (1998) as working long hours without sufficient breaks can lead to stress.

In practice this means that employers should have carried out a risk assessment to identify any risks to health (stress included) and that as a result of this, any identified steps should be taken to address these risks with a review process also built in. The risk assessment will need to be in writing if the organisation has five or more employees.

In addition to this, if an employee alerts the organisation that they are experiencing stress, then an individual risk assessment should also be completed.

In addition to the above, it is also worth remembering that someone with an illness caused by stress may be classed as having a disability as covered by the Equality Act 2010.

Part three: Supporting people with Stress at work

It is important that people are able to be open about their feelings of stress so that they can chat this through and get the help they need. Hopefully this conversation and action plan will be sufficient, and their stress will be reduced. However, sometimes people will need to take time off work. Here are some tips for managing stress-related absences:

  • Keep content of discussions about the reasons for the stress confidential. If you do need to share information (for example with HR) then be sure to let the employee know in advance.
  • Keep in regular contact with the person to avoid them becoming isolated from work. However, be sure to agree the method and frequency of contact with the employee to ensure that they are not overwhelmed. A good tip is to agree when you will speak/ check in next at the end of the conversation.
  • Complete a return-to-work meeting on their return to work. This could include:
    • Making sure they are ready to return.
    • Seeing what support they might need to help with a smooth return including any adjustments.
    • Completing an individual risk assessment (see part two) including a plan for how future stress can be reduced.
    • Updating them about any changes in the workplace.
  • Consider introducing a Stress Awareness policy which would encompass the above.
Part four: Preventing stress in the workplace

As we have said in the previous posts in this series, not only is it a legal requirement but it makes good business sense to reduce stress in the workplace for the following reasons:

  • Improved productivity/ performance of individuals and the organisation as a whole.
  • Increased positive work environment with employees who are healthier.
  • Reduced absences due to stress.
  • Better working relationships between colleagues.
  • Enhanced reputation of the organisation externally.

Drawing from our previous posts on this topic here are some key actions you can take to help reduce/ prevent stress in the workplace:

  • Have a Stress Awareness policy.
  • Promote informal, positive conversations about stress with the aim of supporting employees.
  • Complete risk assessments and follow up on action plans.
  • Provide training for managers to enable them to support their employees effectively.
  • Promote work/ life balance and ensure that employees take appropriate/ sufficient breaks and holidays.