The Stress Factor – What can businesses do?

Work-related stress, depression or anxiety was blamed for 11.7 million working days lost in 2015/16 – just one of the outcomes of mental illness in the UK. Stress accounts for 37% of all work-related ill health cases. When a problem is this common, why isn’t more being done to prevent and treat it?


We speak to Julian Roberts, CEO of EssentialSkillz, the eLearning and compliance specialists, as he shares his thoughts on what businesses can do to recognise and treat stress in the workplace.


Why is work such a big contributor to stress?

Stress is one of the most well-kept secrets of the workplace. Increased workloads, deadline pressures and long hours are just some of the workplace triggers of stress. People find it extremely difficult to talk about their mental health with friends, family or colleagues, often fearing that they appear weak or that it will put their job at risk.

Eight years after the financial crisis, the impacts are still being seen. In 2016, nearly three out of four bank employees admitted to workplace stress manifested by anxiety attacks, insomnia, headaches and depression. Long hours, increased responsibilities due to staff cuts and pressure to perform being to blame1.

Estimates from the Labour Force Survey (LFS) in 2015/2016 reported that there were 488,000 cases of work-related stress, depression or anxiety in the UK. This equated to 11.7 million working days lost. Stress accounted for 37% of all work-related ill health cases and 45% of all working days lost due to ill health2.

These staggering figures demonstrate what a neglected condition stress is for so many people and how much it can affect their day-to-day lives. An organisation is not only directly impacted by loss of productivity caused by employee ill health, but it has a duty to look after its staff’s physical and mental wellbeing – communicating this to all staff.

What responsibilities do companies have for addressing stress in the workplace?

Changing the mind set of employees and managers around the subject of mental health and stress isn’t going to happen overnight. Identifying problems early, or preventing them, could result in cost savings of 30% for the employer, so it’s in the employers’ interests to take the issue seriously.

While it’s well known that stress causes elevated levels of sickness absence and staff turnover, the broader impact on employee health may be surprising to some. After musculoskeletal problems, it is the second biggest health complaint in the workforce. It can cause unhealthy behaviours, such as smoking and heavy drinking, which, in turn, can lead to increased risks of many additional health problems. Recent studies suggest that there are also links to type 2 diabetes.

Employers have a responsibility to provide a healthy and safe working environment, in line with the statutory requirements are set out in the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 and the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999. The duty covers carrying out and monitoring a risk assessment on the workplace, including the prevalence of stress.

Why is it important to include stress in risk assessments for a business?

Flexible working patterns and environments are a positive attribute of a company. But the same business protection measures still need to apply for the wide variety of working conditions that now exist.

When HR teams and Health & Safety advisers are evaluating policies, people-based risk assessments must be included. These are categorised as those which the behaviour of the person is the risk factor, rather than the task itself. There are some types of assessments that can be overlooked, including: home working, lone working, business travel, Display Screen Equipment (DSE) assessments, new and expectant mothers, and stress.

Though most of the above can be assessed by the individual, stress levels are one of the most difficult to determine. The causes and symptoms differ greatly from person to person. Left to the individual line manager, the phrasing of questions to uncover signs can have varying outcomes depending on how the questions are phrased.

But stress measurement is becoming part of the risk assessment package for many organisations. This will significantly help individuals recognise the signs of stress and guide them in addressing them. The government-funded Fit for Work initiative offers a free template to guide employers, outlining how to assess stressful conditions at work3. Whether this template is used or an organisation creates its own, structured online assessments and policies help to collect data while mitigating discrepancies caused by inconsistent implementation by managers.

How can an organisation begin to introduce stress assessments?

The first step is to evaluate the extent of stress within an organisation. This should involve a risk assessment, analysis of absence data and a staff survey. Staff should be involved as policies are developed. Policies should set out the steps staff and the employer will take to mitigate stress.

Key factors that influence the levels of stress in the workplace include:

  • Excessive workloads with unrealistic deadlines.
  • Lack of control over work activities and priorities.
  • Bullying or Harassment.
  • Culture of blame.
  • Weak, ineffective or micro management.
  • Poor physical working conditions.
  • Temporary or contract work leading to financial insecurity.
  • Frequent travel and isolation from friends and family.

An action plan is essential when starting to implement any changes. Knowing what success looks like before starting the process is good practice when measuring success of policy and risk assessment roll-out.

Line managers are perhaps the most critical part of creating a supportive culture, as they are best placed to identify which members of their team might be suffering from stress. One of the most important steps in managing stress on site is to provide line managers with the right tools. Line managers should be empowered to work with the individual directly or report issues to their manager.

The behaviour of line managers can also have the most impact on others. It’s important that line managers know what is expected of them. For example, what management styles should be adopted and what the effects of work-related stress are on the company. 

Is it possible for all UK businesses to have a stress risk assessment?

It’s a complex and challenging task that lies ahead. But there are small but significant steps that we can all take. We should be open to each other about the subject and support those seeking help.

Creating a positive and open working environment that actively works to address mental health at work will benefit employees and organisations. Employers are likely to see increased motivation and productivity. A better work-life balance will lead to; reduced absences, fewer long-term illnesses and quicker recovery by staff who do fall ill. All this means significant improvements in staff morale and substantial cost savings.

Training can help to set the tone for all employees. It will encourage the conversation around stress and mental health and show that an organisation takes the subject seriously. The Stress Essentials eLearning course can be used as a step towards this. It has been designed to encourage employees to work positively, identifying the causes of stress and offering solutions to managing it more effectively.

To find out more about EssentialSkillz, visit




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