Mental Health Awareness Week ( 14 – 20 May 2018) focused on stress. Sometimes it seems like there is a stress epidemic going on as the pressures of modern life cause more and more people, in all walks of life and of all ages, to report feelings of stress.  The impact of this societal issue on the modern workplace should not be under estimated. The Health And Safety Executive (HSE) reports that in 2015/2016 45% of all working days lost to ill health were because of work related stress. The overall economic loss to the Great British economy is estimated to be over £5 billion.

What is stress?

Stress is not an illness in itself although it can lead to health conditions (both physical and mental) such as high blood pressure, depression and anxiety.

Stress is not the same thing as pressure; we all feel pressure at work and indeed need to in order to perform at our best. Stress occurs when this pressure is intense and prolonged, without the opportunity to recover.

HSE defines stress as “the adverse reaction a person has to excessive pressure or other demands placed upon them”.

There will be times when everyone feels that things are getting on top of them and they are unable to cope. It affects people in different ways, at different times and is often the result of both personal and professional issues.

What leads to stress at work?

The HSE has identified six key risk factors that can cause stress at work:

  • the demands of the job
  • an individual’s control over their work
  • the support received from managers and other colleagues
  • relationships at work
  • an individual’s role in the organisation
  • how change is managed in the organisation

The most common factors  cited as causing stress are high workloads, working patterns and insufficient support. Workplaces where there is poor management or poor employee relations often create high stress environments.

What are the symptoms of stress at work?

Employers may be alerted to the fact that there is a problem with stress in their workplace by: high absence rates, high staff turn over, more complaints or formal grievances being raised about workloads or bullying, decreased performance, arguments and more reports of stress.

When an employee’s behaviour changes this can be a sign of stress, for example they may arrive for work later or be more twitchy or nervous. Other signs include:

  • mood swings
  • being withdrawn
  • loss of motivation, commitment and confidence
  • increased emotional reactions such as being more tearful, sensitive or aggressive

What can I do if I feel like I am getting stressed at work?

Ideally speak to your manager as soon as possible so they have the chance to help and prevent matters getting worse. If your line manager is the problem then speak to your employee representative (if you have one) or someone in the HR team.

Many employers offer a complementary and confidential employee assistance programme so use it if you have access to one. Ultimately you can use your employer’s formal grievance procedure to bring matters to their attention and seek resolution.


Although there has traditionally been a  stigma around mental health problems, individuals should not hold back from telling their employer that they are suffering stress at work (or at home). All employers have a legal duty to take care of their employees’ health, safety and welfare at work. By admitting to a problem, an individual places the onus on the employer to support them. Left to get worse, stress can lead to serious health problems.


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