Reducing stress in the workplace: steps for prevention and management

Posted on December 3, 2021
Posted by Marion Kennedy

According to the HSE, work-related stress, depression and anxiety are the number one cause of workplace sickness absence. Given this, to encourage employers to promote good mental health in work and recognise and respond to the signs of stress among employees, HSE has launched its Working Minds campaign. This campaign is aimed at supporting small businesses by providing simple advice to help them manage work-related stress. 

Ensuring appropriate policies and processes are in place to prevent work-related stress not only helps to reduce sickness absence, but promotes retention and productivity. Having a healthy workforce improves all facets of your business, from customer relationships and your business’s public image, to relationships between staff and their engagement with their work. Looking after your employees’ mental health may be particularly important during the pandemic, as some employees may feel more lonely, isolated or stressed while working remotely (and/or be worried about their own health or the health of others). 

To help you understand how to manage work-related stress, we’ve set out some common FAQs below, along with links to appropriate health and safety risk assessments your business can use. 

Work-related stress: causes and common signs

What causes stress at work?

According to the HSE, there are six main causes of work-related stress. These are demands, control, support, relationships, role and change. For example, workers may become stressed if they:

  • can’t handle the demands and responsibilities of their job;
  • don’t have control over the way they do their job; 
  • are having problems with other staff at work, or are being bullied; 
  • are unsure about what their role should be; and/or
  • aren’t kept informed, or are not engaged, about changes in the organisation.

What are some common signs of stress in a team or worker?

Signs of stress in a team can include high staff absence or turnover, arguments, complaints and grievances. An individual who is stressed might have mood swings or show changes in behaviour, be more withdrawn, arrive for work late or take more time off, and lose motivation or confidence. 

You should keep in regular contact with workers and notice if they start to act differently. It can be easier to manage stress if you act early to address the causes, such as by removing or reducing risks identified by a risk assessment, and/or encouraging a worker to see their GP. 

Reducing the risk of work-related stress

How can I reduce the risk of work-related stress, depression or anxiety to my staff?

As well as keeping in contact with workers and providing support, you should carry out regular risk assessments which include the risks to your staff of work-related stress and identify ways you will reduce or remove those risks. 

Our risk assessment templates include suggestions for managing workplace stress and fatigue; however you will need to consider your own business and staff needs, and include other actions as you see fit to manage workplace stress. Risk assessments are not a ‘box ticking’ exercise and will be much more valuable to your business if you take the time to evaluate and identify risks specific to your business and how you can address them. Consulting with your workers about risks they see, and how they would like them to be addressed, can also be an excellent way of improving your risk assessment. 

What are some common ways of managing and reducing work-related stress?

The following steps are some examples of ways to deal with common causes of stress:

  1. make sure your staff are not overworked, and consult them about, or give them control over, the pace of their work (including break times); 
  2. ensure that staff feel supported by their managers and peers, and that they know how to access that support;
  3. check that staff have a clear understanding of their role and give regular, constructive feedback to help staff develop;
  4. ensure that you have policies and procedures in place for dealing with negative behaviours like bullying (and make sure they’re actually enforced);
  5. keep staff informed and consult with them about any changes to your business that may affect them, so they’re not surprised by unexpected change; and
  6. keep in touch with staff regularly to assess their mood and talk through how they approach their tasks. 

Other ways of fostering a healthy workplace include checking that your facilities and premises are safe, offering health related benefits such as private medical insurance or subsidised gym memberships (if financially viable), taking a flexible approach to staff working arrangements where possible, and monitoring sickness absence to check for any unusual patterns. 

Do I have to keep written records of my risk assessments?

If you employ five or more people, you are legally required to keep written records of your risk assessments. However, even if you employ fewer people, it is best practice to record your risk assessments so you can refer back to them later if a problem arises. 

Do I have to give copies of my health and safety risk assessments to my employees?

No, you don’t need to give copies of your general health and safety risk assessments to your employees. However, you are legally required to tell them what risks you’ve identified and what you’ve done to help protect them from those risks, so making your assessment available can be an efficient way of doing this. Note that different rules apply to publishing your COVID-19 risk assessment; see our Q&A for further guidance.

Work-related stress for homeworkers and lone workers

Are there extra steps I should take to reduce stress risks for homeworkers?

Yes. Home workers or other lone workers (eg travelling salespeople) can easily become isolated and lonely and/or run into health problems from not having the right workstation set up, so it’s important to take extra steps to combat their stress. These steps might include:

  1. ensuring they come in once a week to stay in touch with other workers and keep up to date with what’s going on in the business; 
  2. remembering to include them in work functions and meetings; 
  3. providing helplines for IT support or equipment breakdowns;
  4. providing counselling helplines;
  5. ensuring that their IT systems are set up properly to be able to keep in contact during the day, and checking in with them regularly;
  6. checking that their workstation set up is healthy (by carrying out a DSE assessment);
  7. having regular catch ups to monitor their mood and talk through their tasks.  

Our General risk assessment for remote workers provides suggestions for ways of dealing with stress to remote workers; again, you should ensure you identify and manage risks specific to your business. You can find further guidance on reducing risks to staff at Reducing health and safety risks.

Don’t forget that you must take reasonable steps to ensure that homeworkers are taking breaks and not working excessively long hours. See Rules about working hours for further guidance.

Sickness absence due to stress 

What should I do if staff are taking too much sickness absence due to stress?

Frequent sickness absence can be a distinct problem, especially for small businesses. If the absences become commercially damaging to your business, you may need to take steps to dismiss the member of staff. However, before resorting to dismissal, it’s important to show that you did what you could to resolve the issue and try to help your staff member’s situation. This is particularly important if your employee has been continuously employed for more than two years, as they may be able to bring a claim for unfair dismissal if you do not follow a fair process. 

Appropriate steps to take if you’re dealing with a staff member who is frequently off sick include: 

  1. Monitoring their absences and having a sickness absence policy in place

    Keep a record of the amount and frequency of sick leave taken by each staff member, making sure you comply with data protection obligations. It can help to have a sickness absence policy which specifies that after a certain level of absence you will meet with your staff member to discuss it (this reduces the chance of a staff member feeling singled out or victimised). See HR policies for further information about setting such a policy and Staff handbook and policies for a template you can use.
  2. Discuss the issue and possible solutions

    Have a private meeting with your staff member to discuss the reasons for their frequent sick leave and try to come up with steps to improve the situation; see Dealing with sickness absence for further guidance on how to conduct this meeting.
  3. Consider disciplinary action

    Where a staff member’s absences continue after taking the steps set out above, and are disruptive to your business and other staff members, you’re likely to be justified in taking disciplinary action and potentially dismissing your staff member. You should notify your staff member in writing and arrange a formal disciplinary meeting. Our Disciplinary toolkit includes all the documents you need to handle a disciplinary matter.

The content in this article is up to date at the date of publishing. The information provided is intended only for information purposes, and is not for the purpose of providing legal advice. Sparqa Legal’s Terms of Use apply.