Workplace stress – what it means to be there for your employees

5th July 2021

Stress can place huge demands on an employees’ physical and mental health. It is a major cause of long-term absence from work, so understanding stress and how to manage factors that can cause it is key to managing people effectively.

Over recent years the rate of occupational stress has increased, with the last year’s figures significantly higher than previous years.


Signs of stress in the workplace

The clear signs that indicate that an employee may be suffering from workplace stress would be any uncharacteristic behaviour or a change in their performance. Key signs can be:

  • Performance – inconsistent or declining; lack of motivation.
  • Emotion – conflict and clashes; withdrawal; undue sensitivity.
  • Physical – fatigue; rapid weight loss/gain; poor time management.


What steps can you take to reduce workplace stress?

An important albeit challenging mission, taking steps to reduce workplace stress will help to: make staff healthier and happier, improve performance/productivity, minimise workplace disputes, and more.

If a risk assessment identifies the areas where your business is performing poorly and highlights the possible stressors, then you should work with your staff to agree realistic and practical ways to handle it.

Take a break

Encourage your staff to take breaks regularly. This will allow them to spend time refocusing and refreshing without feeling overwhelmed by the demands of the day job. A break could mean 10 minutes in the middle of the day, a proper lunchbreak, a long weekend or a 10-day period of annual leave.

Give back control

Often a common cause of stress is not feeling in control. If an employee feels they have no control over the nature or demands of their job, then this can cause feelings of helplessness. Reasserting control over parts of a job is a helpful step, allowing staff the freedom and flexibility to look for ways they can tailor tasks to their own preferred working style will go a long way.


Sometimes an employer simply won’t be aware of stress-related issues in their organisation. Employees often internalise their concerns or speak of them only to close friends.

Some businesses will take a workplace ‘temperature check’ to identify issues with stress before they result in staff illness or impact on productivity. You may want to run an anonymous engagement survey to keep your finger on the pulse of your workplace, without being obtrusive. For staff, this provides an opportunity to raise any concerns in a safe, non-obtrusive way.


Supporting an employee experiencing workplace stress

Where it has been identified that a team member is suffering with workplace stress, the employer should consider what support or changes would rectify the situation. Often small, simple changes to working arrangements or responsibilities will help ease pressures affecting the individual, these are known as reasonable adjustments.

Even if the cause of stress may not be work-related, changes to the employees working arrangements may help reduce some of the pressure they are experiencing. For example, temporarily changing their working hours may reduce stress caused by caring responsibilities for an ill-relative.


Prevention and early intervention

Identifying the main risks of workplace stress is important but implementing measures to reduce or eradicate them is paramount.

Training line mangers to identify potential causes of stress and educating them on how to manage people and workloads efficiently is fundamental. Likewise, educating staff to ensure they understand workplace stress and the importance of asking for help and support – especially during periods of change and uncertainty – ensures a safe space for raising concerns. You could look to engage with an Employee Assistance Programme or an agency who are available to specialise in workplace counselling; ensure all staff are aware of the service and include it in your induction for new starters.

Although line managers should hopefully be able to spot the early signs of stress and mental health issues in their team members, employers should also ensure there is someone responsible for line managers’ mental health and wellbeing as this can be overlooked.

Using the HSE’s Talking Toolkit will help managers start a conversation with their employees in identifying stressors (risks) to help manage and prevent work-related stress.