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How to prevent stress in the workplace

AuthorsClaire BurrowsDana SamatarCarys Thornton

5 min read

Health & Safety, Employment

How to prevent stress in the workplace

Employers are required to ensure the health, safety and welfare of their employees while they are at work — so far as reasonably practicable. This includes preventing work-related stress.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) — the national regulator for workplace health and safety — has launched an online learning tool as part of its Working Minds campaign to guide employers and business owners on their legal duties.

Here, Partner Claire Burrows, Trainee Solicitor Dana Samatar and Trainee Solicitor Carys Thornton in our regulatory team explore the new HSE tool and ways to prevent work-related stress so that employers can meet their health and safety obligations.


Health and safety obligations surrounding workplace stress

Historically, the focus of employer obligations has been on traditional health and safety — making sure that employees have the right equipment, training and a safe working environment to avoid accidents and injuries at work. However, employee mental health and wellbeing are attracting more attention. Now recognised as a key area of health and safety and one of the biggest causes of work-related ill health, employers must make further investments in preventing workplace stress to ensure compliance with their obligations under health and safety law.


What is stress and what are the signs of it?

The HSE’s definition of stress is “the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them. … For example, workers can get stressed if they feel they don’t have the skills or time to meet tight deadlines”.

Many different circumstances may lead an employee to feel stress at work. Employers must recognise that what may cause stress for one employee may not cause stress for another. The HSE explains that “factors like skills and experience, age or disability may all affect whether a worker can cope”.

The HSE sets out that a change in the way an employee acts, thinks or feels can be a sign of stress. For example, signs of stress can include an employee having “increased emotional reactions” or “loss of motivation, commitment and confidence”.

Employers should look out for signs of stress within a team, such as “arguments”, “more sickness absence”, “decreased performance” and “more complaints and grievances”.


Stress is the biggest cause of work-related ill health

The HSE’s 2023 annual statistics on work-related ill health and occupational disease reveal that 1.8 mil workers suffered from work-related ill health, with half of those (875,000) due to stress, depression or anxiety. It was estimated that 35.2 mil working days were lost as a result of self-reported work-related ill health or injury. The HSE reports that, on average, each person suffering from stress, depression or anxiety took 19.6 days off work.

As an example of how this is perpetuated within certain sectors, The Retail Trust’s 2023 research included that an overwhelming 80% of participants reported that they are experiencing deteriorating mental health overall, signalling that a dramatic shift is needed to improve mental health and promote wellbeing of workers.

More than half (52%) of the retail staff consulted said that the rising cost of living is impacting their mental health, with 21% of those saying that they are struggling to meet their monthly outgoings.

There may be a range of external factors outside of an employer’s control that may be negatively impacting mental health for workers in most sectors of work in Britain. Such issues may include the cost-of-living crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic, increasing loneliness and social housing issues to name a few. Despite this, there is much that employers can do to fulfil their obligations under health and safety law.


How can employers prevent work-related stress?

There are many ways that employers can take action to prevent work related stress and the HSE online learning tool is a great place to start.


1. Use the HSE resources

The HSE provides comprehensive guidance for employers on managing stress and mental health at work. This includes guidance and advice for managers on mental health conditions, signs of stress, how to carry out a stress risk assessment and ‘Management Standards’  — helping employers demonstrate good practice through six key areas of work design (demands, control, support, relationships, role and change).

To further support employers in managing work-related stress and encourage good mental health within their businesses, the HSE Working Minds campaign launched a free online learning tool for employers in November last year. The online learning is designed to provide an understanding of what employers’ legal duties are and what employers need to be doing to be compliant.

The online learning is “based on the principles of risk assessment, with a focus on five steps: Reach out > Recognise > Respond > Reflect > Make it Routine”. It is an interactive tool with six short modules including practical resources.

We recommend the free online learning as a way for employers to refresh knowledge on the topic and effect changes within the workplace as required. In doing so, employers can unlock the potential for increased productivity, improved reputation and increased profitability.


2. Talk to a health and safety law specialist

It’s clear from the HSE’s annual statistics that all employers need to prioritise effectively managing work-related stress, mental health and wellbeing to ensure they maintain a safe and healthy workforce.

The HSE’s efforts to support employers through additional online resources demonstrates that managing the risks associated with stress at work is a critical part of ensuring the health, safety and wellbeing of employees in today’s world.

All employers should review their approach to identifying and managing the risks associated with workplace stress to ensure that they can comprehensively demonstrate to the regulator that they have acknowledged the importance of managing workplace stress and are fully compliant with health and safety legislation.  


Talk to us

We are experts in supporting employers with health and safety compliance. If you need help in reviewing your policies relating to employees’ stress at work or require additional support, training or guidance, our health and safety law team can help.

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