How to deal with stress
Putting the systems and policies in place to deal with the growing problem of stress in the workplace and prevent sickness absence and productivity issues
Tackling work-related stress is essential to ensure the well-being of both you and your employees. It can safeguard the performance of your business.
Stress can be particularly damaging for owner-managers and the self-employed. Though a degree of pressure can help you to perform, excessive demands can make you less productive and make it harder to make key decisions.
Stress can make your employees less effective at their jobs, cause a rise in sickness absences and increase staff turnover. You are legally required to ensure your staff don't become ill, either physically or mentally, because of work-related stress.
This guide outlines both common causes of work related stress and common causes of personal stress. It advises how you can reduce stress in your workplace and reduce your own stress.
Business benefits of reducing stress
Why you need to take action on stress, to comply with the law and increase your productivity, reduce sickness absence and prevent a high staff turnover
The costs of neglecting stress in your business can be high. Stress is sometimes overlooked as a health and safety issue by small businesses. The unexpected absence of just one member of staff can affect productivity, and efforts to secure cover can be costly and time-consuming.
Reducing stress in your business can help prevent some of the following stress-related problems:
- a fall in your productivity and that of your employees
- poor decision-making
- an increase in mistakes which may in turn lead to more customer complaints
- increased sickness absence
- high staff turnover
- poor workplace relations
Stress often has a cumulative effect. If one member of staff becomes ill through stress, it places added pressure on those covering for them.
A stressed manager may find it difficult to create a positive working environment and monitor stress levels in others.
It's also important to tackle any stress you face as an owner-manager or self-employed person. This is often caused by working excessively long hours or from a feeling of isolation.
Your legal duty for stress
Employers have a legal duty to ensure employees aren't made ill by their work. This includes taking steps to prevent physical and mental illness brought about by stress. These steps need not cost a lot of money and the benefits can be significant.
You must assess the risks of stress caused, or made worse, by work as part of your overall health and safety risk assessment. See health and safety risk assessment.
One of the best ways of assessing stress levels in your business is to carry out a stress audit. Find out if stress is a problem for your business.
Failure to take action could leave you open to a compensation claim from workers who fall ill due to work-related stress.
Common causes of stress at work
It's important to recognise the common causes of stress at work so that you can take steps to reduce stress levels where possible. . Workplace stress can be caused by a number of factors - from heavy workloads and over-promotion to bullying and blame culture.
Some common causes of stress in the workplace include:
- High workloads - excessive amounts of work and unrealistic deadlines making people feel rushed, under pressure and overwhelmed.
- Insufficient workloads - this makes people feel that their skills are being underused. It can make people feel less secure in their job roles.
- Lack of control - having no control over work activities.
- No support - A lack of interpersonal support or poor working relationships leading to someone feeling alone.
- Lack of skills - People being asked to do a job for which they don't have experience or training.
- Adapting to change - Difficulty settling into a new promotion, both in terms of meeting the new role's demands and adapting to possible changes in relationships with colleagues.
- Job security worries - Concerns about job security, lack of career opportunities, or level of pay.
- Bullying or harassment.
- Blame culture - where people are afraid to get things wrong or to admit to making mistakes.
- Weak or ineffective management - this leaves employees feeling they don't have a sense of direction.
- Over-management - this can leave employees feeling undervalued and affect their self-esteem.
- Multiple reporting lines - unclear chains of command, with each manager asking for their work to be prioritised.
- Lack of communication - Failure to keep employees informed about major changes to the business, causing them to feel uncertain about their future.
- Poor physical working environment - eg excessive heat, cold or noise, poor lighting, uncomfortable seating, faulty equipment, etc.
Conflict at work can also be a common area of stress, see managing conflict.
Workplace stress audit
Monitoring your business for potential sources of stress by carrying out a systematic stress audit using a checklist or questionnaire to consider key areas of stress
Colleagues and managers may notice a range of signs from someone suffering from stress.
It can also help you to assess the risks of stress that people in your business may face as part of your health and safety risk assessment.
Carry out a stress audit
A stress audit involves talking informally to staff to find out if they have any concerns. This can be either individually or in groups. Let employees know why you are carrying out the exercise and what you're trying to achieve - ie that you hope to prevent future problems or cure any existing ones.
If you have safety representatives, involve them in your plans and decision-making. Always respect the confidentiality of staff.
A useful exercise is to ask staff to list the three best and worst things about their job and whether any of these put them under excessive pressure.
You can also use questionnaires to gather the same information. Although there's a range of commercially available questionnaires, you may be better off developing your own checklist to fit the particular needs and working conditions of your business.
There are a number of key areas you should consider:
- work scheduling and the type of work
- working relationships with colleagues
- the level of communication and reporting
- the physical working environment
- employees' expectations of their work
Don't forget to monitor your own stress levels. See dealing with your own stress.
Signs of workplace stress
How to detect symptoms of stress in individuals and groups such as poor performance, tiredness and irritability and an increase in sick leave
Colleagues and managers may notice a range of signs from someone suffering from stress.
These signs include:
- tiredness and irritability
- reduced quality of work
- indecisiveness and poor judgement
- loss of sense of humour
- physical illness such as headaches, nausea, aches and pains
- seeming jumpy or ill-at-ease, or admitting to sleeping badly
- increased sick leave
- poor timekeeping
- changes in working day patterns - perhaps by staying late or taking work home
Signs of stress in groups
You should also look for signs of more widespread problems among groups of employees, for example:
- arguments and disputes between staff
- general absenteeism
- an increase in grievances and complaints
- greater staff turnover
For information on identifying and managing some of the causes of stress managing conflict.
You also need to watch out for signs that your own stress levels are rising. See dealing with your own stress.
Reduce stress in your workplace
How to reduce work-related stress levels in your business - from reducing employees' workloads to giving them more autonomy and ensuring holidays are taken
Once you have found possible stress problems in your business, you can then take steps to tackle the causes.
You can try the following measures to deal with work-related stress:
- If overwork is causing people to feel stressed, consider how you might reduce their workload. Ensure targets are challenging but realistic. Help people to prioritise work, cutting out unnecessary tasks and providing time-management training if necessary. Encourage delegation of work where possible, and try to delegate work yourself.
- Make sure staff take their holiday entitlement - and take your own.
- Check individuals are well-matched to the jobs you give them. Make sure your recruitment and selection procedures help you to achieve this.
- Make sure every employee has a well-defined role - and that they know what this is.
- Review people's performance so that they know how they're doing and you can identify any training they may need.
- Where possible give employees more autonomy, allowing them to plan their work schedule and decide how to tackle problems.
- Adopt a management style that encourages employees to discuss problems with you. Provide them with opportunities to feed back to you or express ideas about their work.
- Keep staff informed about your business' direction and make sure you tell them about significant changes to the business.
- Ensure you have effective disciplinary and grievance procedures to tackle bullying and harassment.
Non work-related stress
Consider the following ways of tackling personal-life stress:
- Encourage employees to achieve a better work/life balance. See Promote healthy work-life balance in your business.
- Take a sympathetic and consistent approach to any personal problems that employees may have - for example a relationship break-up or family illness. See common causes of personal stress.
Common causes of personal stress
Non-work factors can cause stress to your employees affecting their work, such as divorce, family illness, bereavement, moving house and debt problems
Sometimes people may suffer from stress that isn't caused by work-related issues but instead has an external cause from their personal life.
Common external causes of stress include:
- relationship difficulties or a divorce
- serious illness in the family
- caring for dependants such as children or elderly relatives
- moving house
- debt problems
Remember that personal life causes of stress can also affect you as an owner-manager or self-employed person. See manage your own stress.
How to manage causes of personal stress
Unlike workplace stress, you don't have a legal responsibility to tackle personal causes of stress among employees. However, but you should remember that issues can have a major impact on their performance and affect your whole company. So it's a good idea to adopt a sympathetic and understanding approach.
Offering employees paid time off, or suggesting more flexible working arrangements, can be practical ways to help them deal with their problems. Your approach should be consistently applied. You can develop a written policy if appropriate. See time off for personal commitments and emergencies.
You may want to suggest that an employee seeks professional help from their doctor. You could also point them in the direction of support groups such as Relate or Alcohol Concern.
However, there's a risk you could be seen to be interfering, so it's important to use your judgement to decide whether this is appropriate.
Always respect employees' confidentiality if they tell you about personal problems they are facing.
Stress - whatever its origins - can lead to mental ill health, including anxiety and depression. See supporting employees with mental ill health.
Stress management training and counselling
How courses in time management and other skills, promoting healthy living and counselling services may help employees manage their stress more effectively
Training courses may help business owners, managers and employees deal with work pressures more effectively.
Appropriate courses may include those covering areas such as:
- leadership skills
- communication skills
- relaxation techniques
You can search our Events Finder to check if there are any upcoming stress management courses.
Managers may also benefit from training to identify signs of stress in others and to assess the impact of their managerial style on staff.
Helping employees deal with stress
It can also be a good idea to promote healthy living, which can help people keep fit and deal with workplace stress more effectively. You might do this by providing health information and education - or perhaps by organising keep-fit, yoga or relaxation classes.
You may want to consider whether stress counselling would be appropriate for your business. Some organisations pay for confidential one-to-one counselling sessions for their employees, who can discuss both work and non-work related problems with a professional counsellor. But such schemes - known as Employee Assistance Programmes - can be expensive and are typically used by larger businesses.
Manage your own stress
Identifying and tackling stress in yourself, including the common physical and emotional symptoms and tactics for coping with stress such as relaxation techniques
Owner-managers and self-employed people need to learn to spot the signs of their own stress and take steps to tackle it.
Signs that you might be experiencing stress yourself could include:
- poor judgement and indecisiveness
- difficulty in concentrating
- a lack of assertiveness
- irritability, aggressiveness, depression or loss of sense of humour
- physical symptoms such as breathlessness, headaches, chest pains, nausea, sleeplessness, high blood pressure and constant tiredness
Stress can be worse if you work alone. If you have no one to confide in, it can be easy for things to get out of hand.
This can be a particular problem for owner-managers who don't have the support of a management team. They may feel under pressure to work through periods of stress to ensure the continuity of the business. Although employees expect the managing director to know what to do in a given situation, you may in fact need help yourself.
In addition, business owners often have significant capital invested in the business, putting added pressure on key decisions.
One way of dealing with this is to network with people running businesses of a similar size to talk through each other's problems.
You might even bring in a mentor to help you cope with the pressures of running your business.
How to cope with stress
If you are suffering from stress, you need to try to:
- identify and tackle the underlying causes
- practise relaxation techniques
- improve your diet and cut back where appropriate on smoking, alcohol and caffeine consumption
do regular exercise
- avoid regularly working long hours if at all possible
- make sure you take holidays
Find out about managing your own stress levels.
Support people affected by traumatic events
What you can do to support and accommodate colleagues and employees after a traumatic event such as a natural disaster or serious accident
A 'traumatic event' could be:
- a natural disaster, such as flooding or other severe weather causing injuries and deaths
- a terrorist attack or serious accident
- other situations in which a person feels extreme fear, horror or helplessness
It can be helpful for those who work with people who have been affected by a traumatic event or experience to try and understand the effects that this can have on people.
When dealing with someone who has been through a traumatic event, remember that people will react very differently. While some people may want to talk about their experiences, others may not. People are likely to experience a range of emotions and feelings.
If you do need to support people who have experienced trauma try to bear in mind the following:
- Be yourself - even if you don't know what to say. Acknowledging what they have been through can help.
- Ask how they are feeling, as it may not be obvious. Don't worry if they get upset - this is a natural reaction. Remember that they may not wish to talk about the incident. Ask them if there is anything you can do.
- It may be difficult for them to feel motivated or to meet deadlines, and their ability to concentrate may be affected. Allow them to work at their own pace and allow time off, or ask if they would rather work at weekends, when it may be quieter.
- With their permission, it may be helpful to inform colleagues about the situation. They may need information, advice and education about trauma and/or loss.
- Ask about arranging extra help and support for them. Let them know about any work support services or groups. It may be helpful for them to take short breaks.
- Understand that they may be dealing with a number of issues and emotions.
- Help by treating them the same as everyone else.
- Understand that their feelings are likely to change over time.
- It can be helpful to discuss with them setting new plans and challenging projects.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
PTSD is a psychological and physical condition that can occur after experiencing or witnessing traumatic events. Northern Ireland has one of the world's highest rates of PTSD.
PTSD is not the only psychological condition that can result from a traumatic event. Many people will develop other conditions such as phobias, for example not wanting to get in a car after witnessing a major road traffic accident.
Support employees with mental ill health
How you can support those with mental ill health, including depression and stress-related conditions including being flexible and seeking expert advice
There are many common types of mental ill health. The most common forms include anxiety, depression, phobic anxiety disorders and obsessive compulsive disorders.
People with these types of diagnosed mental health issues may be regarded as having a disability under the Disability Discrimination Act. You must not treat a disabled person less favourably for a reason relating to their disability, without a good reason.
Mental health issues - which may be mild, moderate or severe - can affect anyone. These issues can be related to or triggered by a number of factors including:
- work-related stress
- relationship breakdowns
- other work or personal difficulties
For more information, see common causes of personal stress.
Mental health issues are one of the most common factors in long-term sickness absence. However, many employees with these conditions may continue to work without displaying obvious symptoms. For example, an employee with a depressive illness may work quite normally, particularly once any medication, counselling or other therapies begin to work.
As with many stress-related conditions, warning signs could include:
- irritability, tiredness
- erratic timekeeping
- neglecting appearance or personal hygiene
- being quieter than usual or being reluctant to participate in meetings, social exchanges or events
How you can help employees with mental ill health
As an employer, you can give special consideration to mental health issues by:
- keeping an open mind
- learning the facts about mental health disorders
- being flexible
- seeking expert advice and guidance
Your line managers' listening skills can be particularly useful for helping to manage mental health issues. You may wish to provide managers with specialist training in dealing with employees suffering from severe anxiety or depression.
If workers feel able to talk about their concerns, this should be encouraged.
You could arrange an informal meeting, perhaps over lunch or coffee, to find out what sort of support they may require.
Treat mental health in the same way as you would when dealing with other potentially sensitive issues at work. Workers may benefit from being asked open-ended questions which allow them to talk about what is happening and why, and being assured that all discussions are in confidence. It is important to remember that they may find it difficult to talk. You could arrange an alternative time and date to discuss the issue, and pose specific questions for them to consider and address when you meet again.
You can also help employees who are suffering from mental health problems by:
- enabling them to work flexible hours, so they can have time off if they need it, or during an especially difficult time
- making sure they can work in the most congenial space - this may mean enabling them to move their desk or work station to a place where they feel most comfortable and secure
Seven key ways to manage stress at work
Practical tips on how to effectively manage and reduce stress in your business to protect employee wellbeing and prevent productivity loss and sickness absence
Work-related stress can cause major problems in a business. It could reduce productivity, lead to sickness absence and increase staff turnover. You have a legal duty to ensure that your employees aren't made ill by their work, including stress-related illness.
Dealing with stress helps to ensure the wellbeing of your employees and yourself. Follow these tips to effectively manage stress.
1. Carry out a workplace stress audit to find out if stress is a problem for your business. This can involve a questionnaire or talking informally to employees.
2. Look out for the signs of workplace stress. This can include irritability, increased sick leave and reduced quality of work.
3. Help staff prioritise their workloads, and set realistic targets. Make sure that no employee feels they have too much or too little responsibility.
4. Make sure that staff take their holiday entitlement. See know how much holiday to give your staff.
5. Where possible give employees more control - allow them to plan their work schedule and decide how to tackle problems.
6. Be sympathetic when employees are suffering from personal-life stress such as an illness in the family or a bereavement. Offering flexible working arrangements can help. See time off for personal commitments and emergencies.
7. As an owner-manager or self-employed person, it is important to manage your own stress. You can try practising relaxation techniques, living a healthy lifestyle and avoid regularly working long hours.