Stressed at Work?

It’s more common than you might think

Posted on: 10/11/2016   By: Lee Rance

The definition of stress at work according to the HSE is “The adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them at work.”


By stuartpilbrow at Flickr [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

When I worked in the pre-press department of a financial research printing company in London, the time sensitive documents had to be printed and delivered by very tight deadlines. We had a short time (normally a few hours) from receiving electronic documents from the clients, getting the files print ready, printing and delivering the finished product. There were only three people in our department and we had to cover 9 am – 10 pm. I worked the late shift so I was expected to stay until all the work was complete, which would vary from night to night. There were quite a few occasions when I was expected to work all night to get the work completed. All I needed was for there to be a problem with the clients files which would have a knock on effect on the whole production schedule. It was a very stressful environment to be in with no safeguards in place.

Stress is not an illness – it is a state. However, if stress becomes too excessive and prolonged, mental and physical illness may develop.

There are many things that can lead to someone suffering from stress at work including:

  • Having to work to tight deadlines, excessive workload and unfavourable shifts
  • Not having control over their work, repetitive or monotonous work
  • Insufficient support from management including resources provided to do the job
  • Relationships between employees which could involve physical or verbal abuse and bullying, sexual discrimination and harassment.
  • Organisational change or relocation.

Stress at work in severe cases can lead to common mental health problems including anxiety or depression, it can be hard to distinguish when ‘stress’ turns into a ‘mental health problem’ and when existing mental health problems become exaggerated by stress at work.

It is impossible to calculate the financial cost of stress in the workplace, but current statistics suggest that the cost of work-related stress to the UK economy is somewhere in the region of £6.5 billion per year.

The latest estimates from the Labour Force Survey (LFS) show:

  • The total number of cases of work-related stress, depression or anxiety in 2015/16 was 488 000 (37%) of all work-related illnesses.
  • The total number of working days lost due to stress, depression or anxiety was 11.7 million in 2015/16, an average of 23.9 days per case of stress, depression or anxiety

The occupations that reported the highest rates of total cases of work-related stress, depression or anxiety were health professionals (in particular nurses), teaching and educational professionals, and health and social care associate professionals (in particular welfare and housing associate professionals).

Stress risk assessments need to be carried out in different areas of a business or for individuals who are working in potentially stressful environments. Employee surveys can be very important in assessing stress levels in an organisation.

The HSE has lots of information on how to tackle work related stress on their website and in response to rising levels of stress at work the EU commission launched the Healthy Workplaces Campaign back in 2014.

Another tool for helping employers assess the levels of stress that employees are experiencing is The Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI). The MBI has been recognized for more than a decade as the leading measure of burnout.

The MBI Surveys address three general scales:

  • Emotional exhaustion measures feelings of being emotionally overextended and exhausted by one’s work
  • Depersonalisation measures an unfeeling and impersonal response toward recipients of one’s service, care treatment, or instruction
  • Personal accomplishment measures feelings of competence and successful achievement in one’s work.

The information that is gathered from the surveys can help employers get a baseline and put measures into place to avoid stressful situations.

Some examples of measures that can be used to avoid stress at work are:

  • Having clearly defined roles and clear work objectives.
  • Employees sufficiently trained in the tasks they are given (including interpersonal skills and time management).
  • Comfortable working environment.
  • Realistic work schedules.
  • Employee involvement in decision making.
  • Availability of a grievance procedure.
  • Management support and development.
  • Work flexibility.

It is not up to an organisation to diagnose stress, but its managers’ responsibilities to recognise that behaviours have changed, and be aware that something is wrong and to take action.

If you would like any advice on stress at work or any other health and safety matters, email us or give us a call on 01908 632418.

Until next time.

Lee Rance