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Stress at work (HSE Guidance)

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Managing work related stress and reducing risks from stress at work.

Employers have a legal duty to protect employees from stress at work.  By carrying out a risk assessment and acting on it employers can discharge this duty.
Stress is not an illness but it can make you ill. Recognising the signs of stress will help employers to take steps to stop, lower and manage stress in their workplace.
The earlier a problem is tackled the less impact it will have. If you think that an employee is having problems, encourage them to talk to someone, whether it's their line manager, trade union representative, GP or their occupational health team.
Help for line managers to have simple, practical conversations with employees which can help prevent stress is available in our Talking Toolkits (PDF) - Portable Document Format .
To protect employees from stress at work, employers should assess risks to their health. These example stress risk assessments may help.
You may need to develop individual action plans for employees suffering from stress.
HSE's Management Standards may also help you to identify and manage the six causes of stress at work.

  • What causes stress

    • There are six main areas that can lead to work-related stress if they are not managed properly. These are: demands, control, support, relationships, role and change.
    • For example, employees may say that they:
      • are not able to cope with the demands of their jobs
      • are unable to control the way they do their work
      • don't receive enough information and support
      • are having trouble with relationships at work, or are being bullied
      • don't fully understand their role and responsibilities
      • are not engaged when a business is undergoing change
    • Stress affects people differently - what stresses one person may not affect another. Factors like skills and experience, age or disability may all affect whether an employee can cope.
    • By talking to your employees and understanding how to identify the signs of stress, you can prevent and reduce stress in your workplace.
  • Signs of stress

    • If employees start acting differently, it can be a sign they are stressed. Managers should look out for signs of stress in teams and employees, listed below. Think about whether the stress could be linked to work pressure.
    • Acting early can reduce the impact of pressure and make it easier to reduce or remove the causes. If managers are worried that an employee is showing some of these signs, they should encourage them to see their GP. These signs can be symptoms of other conditions. If there is something wrong at work, and this has caused the problem, managers should take action.
    • Signs of stress in teams
    • There may be signs of stress in a team, like:
      • arguments
      • higher staff turnover
      • more reports of stress
      • more sickness absence
      • decreased performance
      • more complaints and grievances
    • Employers must assess the risk of work-related stress in their workplace and take action to protect employees.
    • Signs of stress in an employee
    • A change in the way someone acts can be a sign of stress, for example they may:
      • take more time off
      • arrive for work later
      • be more twitchy or nervous
    • A change in the way someone thinks or feels can also be a sign of stress, for example:
      • mood swings
      • being withdrawn
      • loss of motivation, commitment and confidence
      • increased emotional reactions - being more tearful, sensitive or aggressive
    • Employees can help look after their own stress levels at work - if you think you have a problem talk to your manager, a colleague or your GP.
  • Stress Risk Assessment

    • Employers have a legal duty to protect employees from stress at work by doing a risk assessment and acting on it.
    • If you have fewer than five employees you don't have to write anything down. But you are encouraged to do so as it can be reviewed later, for example if something changes. If you have five or more employees, you should write the risk assessment down.
    • Any paperwork you produce will help you to communicate and manage the risks in your business. For most people this does not need to be a big exercise - just note the main points about the significant risks and what you decided.
    • An easy way to record your findings is by using a risk assessment template, and there are example risk assessments on stress below, that may help employers in small businesses.
    • Employers may also find HSE's Management Standards helpful. The standards help identify and manage six areas of work design which can affect stress levels - demands, control, support, relationships, role and change. Our example risk assessments below show the kind of approach a small business might take. Use them as a guide to think through some of the hazards in your business and the steps you should take to control the risks.
  • Reporting a concern

    • HSE is always obliged to make decisions on any investigations in light of other reactive priorities, so this should not be read as a guarantee of how HSE will respond to any specific concern.
    • HSE will consider investigating concerns about work-related stress where:
      • There is evidence that a number of staff are currently experiencing work-related stress or stress-related ill health, (i.e. that it is not an individual case), but
      • HSE is not the appropriate body to investigate concerns solely related to individual cases of bullying or harassment, but may consider this if there is evidence of a wider organisational failing, and
      • HSE would expect concerns about work-related stress to have been raised already with the employer, and for the employer to have been given sufficient time to respond accordingly.
      • HSE does not seek to apply the Health and Safety at Work (General (Guernsey) Ordinance 1987, where there is other more specific legislation or a more appropriate regulator. Cases of bullying and harassment would more commonly be dealt with as issues of discipline eg breaches of policies on expected behaviours, discrimination, victimisation or equality.
    • HSE is not the primary authority on these issues and it would generally signpost to Employment Relations  for workplace disputes, discrimination or unfair dismissal.
    • Where these issues are targeted at one of the protected characteristics of the The Human Rights (Bailiwick of Guernsey) Law, 2000, such action may constitute an offence and HSE would signpost to independent legal advice.  
    • More serious cases may constitute offences under criminal law including where there is physical violence, and correspondents would be signposted to the Police.
    • If you see something that you think may be a Health and Safety issue you should report it here . You can do this anonymously if you are concerned.
  • Help for Employees

    • Spotting signs of stress
    • If you are stressed you may notice changes in the way you think or feel, for example:
      • feeling negative
      • being indecisive
      • feeling isolated
      • feeling nervous
      • being unable to concentrate
    • You may act differently, for example:
      • eat more or less than usual
      • smoke, drink or take drugs 'to cope'
      • have difficulty sleeping
    • If you are feeling signs of stress at work, it is important to talk to someone, for example your manager. If you talk to them as soon as possible, it will give them the chance to help and stop the situation getting worse.
    • If the pressure is due to what your line manager is doing, find out what policies are in place to deal with this. If there aren't any, you could talk to your:
      • trade union representative
      • employee representative
      • HR department
      • employee assistance programme/counselling service if your company has these or
      • GP
    • Many employees are unwilling to talk about stress at work, because of the stigma stress has. But stress is not a weakness, and can happen to anyone at any time.
    • What you employer must do
    • Your employer must assess the risks to your health from stress at work and share the results of any risk assessment with you. Example can be found here.  Your employer may follow the UK HSE's Management Standards approach, which help identify and manage the main causes of stress at work.
    • Help with stress caused by non-work issues
    • For help outside work, *Guernsey Mind - Local Mental Health Services Guide * have useful websites or helplines you can phone for advice in confidence.
  • Mental health

    • Mental health conditions, work and the workplace
    • One in four people in the UK will have a mental health problem at some point. While mental health problems are common, most are mild, tend to be short-term and are normally successfully treated, with medication, by a GP.
    • Mental health is about how we think, feel and behave. Anxiety and depression are the most common mental health problems. They are often a reaction to a difficult life event, such as bereavement, but can also be caused by work-related issues.
    • This guidance talks generally about work-related stress but where such stress is prolonged it can lead to both physical and psychological damage, including anxiety and depression.
    • Work can also aggravate pre-existing conditions, and problems at work can bring on symptoms or make their effects worse.
    • Whether work is causing the health issue or aggravating it, employers have a legal responsibility to help their employees. Work-related mental health issues must to be assessed to measure the levels of risk to staff. Where a risk is identified, steps must be taken to remove it or reduce it as far as reasonably practicable.
    • Some employees will have a pre-existing physical or mental health condition when recruited or may develop one caused by factors that are not work-related factors.
    • Employers may have further legal requirements, to make reasonable adjustments under proposed Discrimination Legislation.  Further information can be found here.
    • There is advice for line managers to help them support their employees with mental health conditions.
    • By taking action on work-related stress, either through using the UK HSE Management Standards or an equivalent approach, employers will:
      • form a mental health at work plan
      • promote communications and open conversations, by raising awareness and reducing stigma
      • provide a mechanism for monitoring actions and outcomes
    • How mental ill health and work-related stress can go together
    • Work-related stress and mental health problems often go together and the symptoms can be very similar.
    • Work-related stress can aggravate an existing mental health problem, making it more difficult to control. If work-related stress reaches a point where it has triggered an existing mental health problem, it becomes hard to separate one from the other.
    • Common mental health problems and stress can exist independently - people can experience work-related stress and physical changes such as high blood pressure, without having anxiety, depression or other mental health problems. They can also have anxiety and depression without experiencing stress. The key differences between them are their cause(s) and the way(s) they are treated.
    • Stress is a reaction to events or experiences in someone's home life, work life or a combination of both. Common mental health problems can have a single cause outside work, for example bereavement, divorce, postnatal depression, a medical condition or a family history of the problem. But people can have these sorts of problems with no obvious causes.
    • As an employer, you can help manage and prevent stress by improving conditions at work. But you also have a role in making adjustments and helping someone manage a mental health problem at work.
    • Management Standards
    • Although stress can lead to physical and mental health conditions and can aggravate existing conditions, the good news is that it can be tackled. By taking action to remove or reduce stressors, you can prevent people becoming ill and avoid those with an existing condition becoming less able to control their illness.
    • HSE's Management Standards approach to tackling work-related stress establishes a framework to help employers tackle work-related stress and, as a result, also reduce the incidence and negative impact of mental ill health.
    • The Management Standards approach can help employers put processes in place for properly managing work-related stress. By covering six key areas of work design you will be taking steps that will minimise pressure, manage potential stressors and limit the negative impact that the work could have on your employees.
    • Advice for employees with mental health conditions
    • If you already feel under pressure, it's hard to distinguish when 'stress' begins to affect your condition, making it worse or bringing on an episode. Many of the symptoms of stress and a mental health condition are similar. The main differences are the severity and duration of the symptoms and the impact they have on your everyday life.  
    • Most people with mental health problems are diagnosed and treated by their GP and continue to work productively. In fact, evidence shows that staying in work can be a great help to those affected.
    • Take action at an early stage
    • If you feel you have a problem, the sooner you do something about it, the better - it can stop you becoming more unwell. Line managers and colleagues can also play an important role in identifying when colleagues are behaving out of character, so it is best to be cooperative if your line manager approaches you with concerns.
    • Help your manager to identify problems and needs
    • It might be that certain tasks, work environments, times of the day or being part of a particular team are linked to your issues. If you feel you have a mental health problem, it is a good idea to raise it with your line manager, HR department or someone else in the workplace.
    • You could make use of scheduled meetings, appraisals or informal chats about progress that you have with your manager - these can give you both a chance to talk about any problems you have.
    • Remember
      • Stress and mental health conditions do not affect everyone in the same way
      • Your employer can make adjustments to ease your problems, but only if you give them a better understanding of your situation
      • Discussions can be positive - you can work out how your employer can help you
    • If you are returning to work after illness
    • Most people who have had an illness will recover and return to work. But if you have had time off sick, you should talk to your manager and agree a plan for your return to work before you come back.
    • You may reach a stage in your recovery when you can return to work, before you are a hundred per cent ready for 'business as usual'. This can mean you need some support or changes in your role or work to make your return easier. You should talk to your manager and work together to meet your needs. A written plan may help you both agree when you have reached the 'business as usual' stage.
    • If you remain unwell despite support, you should get help. Consider asking for a referral to your organisation's occupational health department, if it has one, or see your GP. It is possible that your condition is covered by the Equality Act 2010, which requires your employer to make reasonable adjustments to help you get back into work. But if you don't discuss these issues honestly, your manager is unlikely to be able to help you.
    • If you are going through a hard time and would like to talk to someone, there are organisations that can help - our Useful links page has more information.
  • Advice for managers on mental ill health conditions

    • Talking at an early stage
    • As a manager, you may have employees who experience mental health difficulties. As soon as you notice that an employee is having difficulties, talk to them - early action can prevent them becoming more unwell.
    • If the person does not want to speak to you, suggest they speak to someone else, for example someone from your employee assistance programme, occupational health team or their own GP.
    • Managers should concentrate on making reasonable adjustments at work, rather than understanding the diagnosis. Their GP, medical support or occupational health should be able to provide guidance on what you can do to help them.
    • If an employee goes off sick, lack of contact or involvement from their manager may mean they feel isolated, forgotten or unable to return. You can reduce the risk of them not returning to work by:
      • keeping them informed about what is going on, including social events
      • reassuring them early on and throughout their absence
    • Use routine management tools to identify and tackle problems or needs
    • Use scheduled work meetings, appraisals or informal chats about progress to find out more about any problems an employee may be having. You could have health and safety as an agenda item at meetings. As well as things like display screen equipment assessments etc, this can be used for stress or mental health issues.
    • If you have specific concerns about someone's health, talk about these at an early stage. Ask questions in an open, exploratory and non-judgemental way. These conditions affect people differently, so making adjustments to their job could relieve symptoms. You should be positive and supportive while exploring the issues and how you can help.
    • If a person has been off sick, you should discuss their return to work and reintegration into the workplace beforehand. A written plan can help. You both might want to agree when they have reached the stage of 'business as usual'. At this point, you can use existing management processes to review their performance, needs and work plan.
    • Supporting an employee who is tearful and upset
    • If an employee gets upset, talk to them, reassure them, and tell them that you will give them all the help and support available. Explain that things will go at a pace that suits them. If you are in a meeting with them, ask if they would like someone else with them.
    • Try to be sensitive to the level of information the person can cope with. In the middle of a crisis they may not be able to think clearly and take in complex information. Try to stay calm yourself.
    • Problems can build up over time and while you may feel pressure to do something, it might be better to take some time to think about options properly. Agree with the person which issues are most urgent.
    • If the session is not helpful for the person or you, rearrange it for when they are less upset. If the problem carries on, you should encourage them to seek help, for example from occupational health or their GP.
    • A much smaller number of people will experience more severe anxiety or depression. These can be associated with episodes of 'mania', which can include:
      • extreme, heightened activity
      • psychosis
      • loss of touch with reality
      • hallucinations
      • distortion of the senses
    • In these rare instances, an employee may behave in ways that impact on colleagues or clients and you should keep your responsibilities for all employees in mind.
    • Take the person to a quiet place and speak to them calmly. Suggest that you could contact a friend or relative or that they go home and contact their GP or a member of their mental health team, if appropriate. You may be able to make an appointment and go with them to the surgery, if they want you to.
    • If someone is experiencing hallucinations or mania, they may not take in what you are saying. In this case, they will need immediate medical help. If an employee is disturbing others and refuses to accept help, seek advice from:
      • your occupational health provider
      • the person's GP
      • or call an ambulance.
    • Additional guidance to help you think about ways to support employees who may experience severe and enduring mental ill health can be found in a series of toolkits developed by Business In The Community.
    • Managing a person with an ongoing illness
    • Most people who have ongoing mental health problems continue to work successfully. But when someone needs support, managers can work with them to ensure flexibility to suit their health needs.
    • People with mental health problems should be treated in exactly the same way as any other member of staff, unless they ask for help or demonstrate clear signs that they need it. It is discriminatory to make assumptions about people's capabilities, their promotability or the amount of sick leave they may need because of their illness.
    • Coping strategies
    • Most people are encouraged to develop a coping strategy as part of their care. This often involves noting signs of a possible relapse and taking pre-emptive action, such as cutting down on work, being careful about drinking alcohol, taking exercise and finding time to relax. It is important you support the employee at this first warning stage. Small, inexpensive adjustments may well prevent a more costly period of illness.
    • Advance statements
    • Some people find it useful to draw up an 'advance statement' which explains how they want to be treated if they become unwell. The statement can cover practical arrangements such as details of the people who need to be contacted or provided with information.
    • It might be helpful to draw up an advance statement which relates to the workplace. It could include:
      • signs that indicate the person is becoming unwell
      • who to contact (perhaps a close relative, care coordinator or GP)
      • what sort of support is helpful and what is not
    • If an employee draws up an agreement with you, you should put the statement into practice to maintain trust.
    • Guidance and support
    • Advice and support are available for those in work who have experienced mental health issues, and for their employers.
    • There are several specialist organisations that can provide guidance and support - our Useful links page has more information.
  • Management standards

    • What are the Management Standards?
    • HSE's Management Standards represent a set of conditions that, if present:
      • demonstrate good practice through a step-by-step risk assessment approach
      • allow assessment of the current situation using pre-existing data, surveys and other techniques
      • promote active discussion and working in partnership with employees and their representatives, to help decide on practical improvements that can be made
      • help simplify risk assessment for work-related stress by:
      • a. identifying the main risk factors
      • b. helping employers focus on the underlying causes and their prevention
      • c. providing a yardstick by which organisations can gauge their performance in tackling the key causes of stress
    • They cover six key areas of work design that, if not properly managed, are associated with poor health, lower productivity and increased accident and sickness absence rates. The Management Standards are:
      • Demands - this includes issues such as workload, work patterns and the work environment
      • Control - how much say the person has in the way they do their work
      • Support - this includes the encouragement, sponsorship and resources provided by the organisation, line management and colleagues
      • Relationships - this includes promoting positive working to avoid conflict and dealing with unacceptable behaviour
      • Role - whether people understand their role within the organisation and whether the organisation ensures that they do not have conflicting roles
      • Change - how organisational change (large or small) is managed and communicated in the organisation
    • To effectively implement the Management Standards approach it is essential that you ensure the resource, support and infrastructure for the project is in place in your organisation. For advice on doing this go to Before you start.

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HSE stress management workbook

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