We all have days when we feel a bit ‘down in the dumps’, but there’s a fine line between feeling stressed about occasional workload and becoming isolated and, in some cases, depressed. This is a guide to stress at work, both identifying it and managing it.

Paul Pearce Couch, an experienced communications and PR specialist, looks at the best ways to identify members of your workforce who might be suffering from stress or depression before the problem escalates, and what to do if you find yourself with an employee who is suffering from a work-related mental health issue.

The HSE (The Health & Safety Executive) annual statistics on work-related stress, depression or anxiety for 2018 revealed that 595,000 workers reported suffering from work-related stress in 2017/18 and that resulted in 15.4 million working days being lost (Labour Force Survey).

Businesses of all sizes are realising that stress and its related illnesses can have a significant impact on both their operational efficiency and brand reputation as claims for constructive dismissal, negligence and disability discrimination soar in the UK.

Factors associated with stress can be very costly for employers, including:

  • High levels of absenteeism
  • Increased staff turnover
  • Increased recruitment costs
  • Low productivity
  • Poor public image

Employers’ duties

Currently there are no regulations dealing specifically with stress by name. However, there are implied duties to tackle stress under health and safety legislation including the Health & Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 and The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999.

In November 2004, the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) launched its new Management Standards for work-related stress, which they expect all organisations to implement. The Management Standards acts as a yardstick against which organisations can measure their progress in tackling work-related stress and enable employers to target action where it is needed.

Taking steps to reduce work-related stress can:

  • Reduce the costs associated with sick pay, replacement cover and recruitment
  • Strengthen an employer’s position with employers’ liability insurance
  • Reduce the likelihood of a claim being made for a breach of a duty of care and improve defences against such claims
  • Improve the morale and commitment of employees
  • Improve relationships between members of staff
  • Improve relationships with customers

Most importantly, perhaps, reducing stress at work will ensure that organisational responsibilities for health and safety are met.

Identification: What exactly is work-related stress?

There may be several things that cause work-related stress: overwork, job insecurity, over-promotion, lack of training, bad working relationships, bullying/harassment, change and personal issues. The experienced and responsible employer will recognise that their organisation may be responsible for any or all of these and will understand that, beyond immediate business needs, they have a statutory duty-of-care to their employees.

Work-related stress and depression may manifest themselves in several different ways:

  • Unable to enjoy work in the way they used to
  • Losing interest in social activities with co-workers
  • Lethargy and disinterest in core tasks
  • Poor punctuality
  • Frequent sick leave
  • Becoming aggressive with employers, co-workers or customers
  • Lack of concentration on work
  • Lack of attention to personal hygiene, appearance, etc

What can you do to help?

If you suspect that a member of your team might be suffering from work-related stress or depression, the best way to make sure this is the case is to ask them. Tackle it fast. This should be done in a discrete and compassionate way, even if the employee’s behaviour or performance has been unacceptable. Be aware that many employees who feel they are suffering from stress will leave the office and go to their doctor. If the problem has reached this stage, they could be signed off work for a period of time.

If you’re able to address the problem ‘in-house’, try to make the interview as informal as possible and absolutely non-judgemental. List the signs you’ve noticed and explain that your objective is to help them through whatever is causing the problem. Ask if they can offer an explanation for their behaviours themselves. If they’re not forthcoming, ask if the issue is work-related as problems at home can easily migrate to the office.

Is the stress caused by genuine overwork? If so, the obvious remedy is to try to reduce that workload, perhaps even temporarily, by distributing it fairly among other employees, or by assigning other resources if possible. However, any decision to re-assign part of an employee’s duties must be taken in consultation with the employee, as doing so unilaterally could give grounds for a constructive dismissal claim.

If the problem is bad working relationships then steps should be taken to try to resolve those issues, for example through office counselling or some form of mediation. If the stress is due to personal issues, it might be appropriate to consider allowing a short period of unpaid leave or a temporary period of flexible working.

Of course, there is a possibility that the employee’s ‘stress’ is caused by an inability to do the job, poor inter-relations with others, job security fears, or some other issue. Claiming stress may simply be a way of diverting attention away from the deficit of professional or interpersonal skills. If this is the case, the focus should go onto addressing those issues. Try:

  • More frequent performance reviews
  • Setting up a structured and time-tracked workload
  • Further training
  • Mentoring
  • Disciplinary procedure

When to seek medical advice

It's always advisable to consider seeking a medical assessment. This is particularly crucial where the employee appears to have a stress-related illness, such as depression, as he or she may not be in a position to give an accurate picture of his or her state of health and the complaint might well be genuine.

Gain as much relevant background information as possible and clear guidance as to what the employer requires him or her to address. Broadly speaking, this will involve an assessment as the employee’s current state of health and the causes of the problem, and any recommended steps to address the situation. Any recommendations that are reasonably practicable should be implemented. If a recommendation is not feasible, make a note of why.

How to make reasonable adjustments

In a bad case, an employee’s stress or depression may make him or her 'disabled' for the purposes of the Equality Act (section 6). You will then be under a duty to make reasonable adjustments to any provision, criterion or practice you operate that places him or her at a substantial disadvantage compared with non-disabled people. Warning: a failure here will constitute disability discrimination.

A Tribunal will scrutinise the extent to which you comply with any recommendations. Letters of instruction should question specifically what, if any, reasonable adjustments can be made to the employee’s duties or working conditions, and proper attempts made to implement those which are practicable.

Immediately after the employee returns to work, you should meet with him or her to clarify your understanding of their current state of health to talk about any temporary or permanent adjustments which are to be put in place to facilitate his or her return, and to discuss any other points which the employee wants to raise. Make notes so there is no confusion later as to what was agreed.

Management: The proactive approach to stress

The consequences of ignoring a problem

Over and above the requirements of health and safety legislation, there can be other legal consequences for employers who knowingly allow their employees to be subjected to levels of pressure that might reasonably lead to stress-related illness. An employee who becomes ill as a result of workplace stress may be able to sue the employer for damages for personal injury in the following circumstances:

  • The employee has developed a diagnosable psychiatric illness
  • The illness has – on the balance of probabilities – been caused (or partly caused) by factors at work
  • The employee can show that it was reasonably foreseeable to the employer that he or she would become ill as a result of stress at work
  • It can be argued that the employer acted negligently by not taking reasonable steps to prevent the harm to the employee’s health

How to deal with absent employees

Dealing with an employee on sick leave can be tricky but needn’t be. Maintain contact with your employee on a regular basis, don’t simply let them leave for three months without interaction. This mustn’t be perceived as harassment, but the employer must be seen to be taking their duty of care seriously.

Appoint one person as your regular point of contact. If the employee is suffering from stress, under no circumstances allow anyone to contact them with work-related queries.

An employee who is too unwell to work is not necessarily incapable of communicating with their employer, especially because it's only by the employer’s knowing enough of the problem to deal with it that the employee will be able to return.

If the employee does not feel comfortable coming to the office then consider offering to go to their house to discuss the situation instead. Alternatively, ask the employee to set out concerns in writing. In all cases, whether a complaint of stress or a full-blown grievance, the employee should be asked what steps he or she believes should be taken to address the situation, but the employer is not obligated to take these steps.

Where there's a reasonable perception that the employee is not really ill but just hiding from reality, or where he or she is ill but not taking proper steps to help you address their issues, then you are entitled to exercise against them any discretion you have to discontinue sick pay.

Dismissing a stressed employee

You should be seen to make reasonable efforts to assist an employee who is off with stress, but there may still come a point when you have to consider dismissing him or her due to continued inability to perform the role. Any dismissal needs to be handled sensitively and carefully to avoid claims of unfair dismissal and disability discrimination.

Initially, you should obtain an up-to-date medical assessment of the employee’s state of health in order to understand the prognosis and what work he or she might be able to do in the short term. Consideration should be seen to be given to finding an alternative role before dismissing. If there's no such option, then it may be appropriate at that time to move to dismiss the employee.

No final decisions should be taken until the employee has been given the opportunity to discuss the proposed dismissal and to comment on the employer’s assessment of the state of health and ability to work. Whether or not the illness is claimed (or even proven) to be your fault, continued incapability can still be a fair reason for dismissal.

Prevention: Putting plans in place

Taking a proactive, rather than a reactive, approach to stress at work can save time, money and help promote a better working environment for everyone. A comprehensive and proactive stress management strategy involves three elements of prevention and control, namely the primary, secondary and tertiary levels:

1. Primary Intervention

Concerned with identifying the possible causes of stress and the level of risk to individuals and the organisation as a whole. Achieved through the process of risk assessment. For this level of intervention to be effective, it is vital that all those involved understand the issue of work-related stress and are committed to taking action.

A stress policy and effective procedures should be put in place. The stress policy should contain a statement of intent, the health, safety and welfare policy of the organisation, details of the organisational structure and responsibilities and a description of the systems and procedures in place to either eliminate, minimise, control or treat stress at work.

2. Secondary Intervention

Sets out to improve the overall situation in the office by implementing the recommendations identified in the risk assessment. This is likely to include helping employees to recognise and deal with the causes of stress, e.g. by providing appropriate stress awareness training.

Other outcomes that might be implemented are:

  • Management training, e.g. communication skills
  • Interpersonal skills development and team building
  • Investigations into any reported instances of harassment, discrimination, bullying, etc.

3. Tertiary Intervention

Deals with the treatment and rehabilitation of those individuals who have suffered ill health as a result of stress.

Where an employee is away from work and has a certificate or self-certificate that gives "stress" as the reason for absence, the first step is to try to ascertain whether there have been previous problems and if these are work or home-related.

There must be a proper record of the employee's absences from work and the reasons for them. Any previous grievances raised by the employee should also be noted.

If the absence is of short duration and well covered by the sickness policy, there may be no further steps to take in terms of cautioning the employee, etc. However, when the person returns to work, their line manager must spend time with them to establish the cause of the stress and what the organisation can do to help.

If the situation is likely to be of longer duration, the employer needs to take the same steps as they would take in any long-term sickness case and, at the same time, look critically at the work the employee has been doing, its complexity, impact and volume, and ascertain if there is any action which could be taken to minimise the stress.

How can I prevent work-related stress?

The simple answer is, you can’t. However, there are steps that will pay dividends in creating a contented and productive workforce.

  • Develop empathy

While all employees should conform to the rules of employment set by your organisation, don’t expect them to be clones. Each one has his or her personal agenda, aspirations, and personal motivations. Respect these and your employee will feel valued.

  • Provide for anonymous complaints and feedbacks

There is no better way to secure the trust of employees, and reduce employee stress, than to allow them to voice their feedback and complaints. Conduct a weekly meeting to address their concerns. Don’t take any negative feedback personally; try to address it in the best way possible.

  • Encourage healthy snacking

Does your organisation have facilities for snacks and soft drinks? Ditch the chocolate, crisps and fizzy drinks as a policy and replace them with healthier options.

  • Regular one-to-one interaction

If your work culture seems to be taking a negative turn, act quickly and identify any individuals who might be the root cause. In many instances it can be one personal grievance that causes unrest. Encourage regular one-to-one sessions with managers and supervisors to discuss any issues before they escalate.

  • Help employees manage time effectively

Everyone gets swamped with work sometimes but planning and preparation can go a long way to preventing this. Do your employees seem to have a structured day or are they working one hour to the next without knowing what the next task is? Encourage scheduling and diaries.

  • Give employees reassurance

People need reassurance that their job is secure, at least for the time being. Within the operational needs, be as transparent with your workforce as possible. Avoid closed meetings, unless the matter is confidential. Above all, be positive and be realistic.

  • Ensure a clean and tidy working environment

It may sound like a no-brainer but it’s surprising how many offices are cluttered. We spend a great deal of time at work and it’s vital that our surroundings are as conducive to productivity as possible. Look into how to green up your office space too.

10 common traps and how to stay calm

As well as the above, author, speaker, and business advisor Mike Clayton shares the common pitfalls we are all guilty of falling into – and how to stay calm.

1. Not enough planning time

It’s easy to skip planning and not prepare, especially when you are under pressure. But this is a false economy. Planning and preparation help you to feel in control and you’ll know how much time you need to succeed without stress.

2. Not giving yourself any contingency

Things go wrong, it happens. Allow extra time to get there or finish early to reduce stress levels when unexpected problems arise. When you have enough contingency time, problems become “part of the plan” and you can handle them calmly and efficiently.

3. Doing too many things at once

Multi-tasking is inefficient and adds to your stress levels. Don’t try to be an octopus, it is far better to do one thing at a time. You will be calmer, more efficient, and you will do better quality work. This will also provide a greater sense of pleasure and pride. Mono-tasking is the best way to work.

4. A problem shared...

Keeping problems to yourself rarely helps. If you do feel the first signs of stress, talk to others around you. If they are stressed too, then you will know you aren't alone. If they aren’t, then perhaps they can help calm you.

5. Stuck behind your desk

As stress builds up, two things happen: we start to connect it emotionally with the place we are in, and we start to tense our muscles, leading to aches, pains and more stress. Doing nothing more than getting up from your desk, having a stretch and walking about a little will reduce your stress levels and ease back, shoulder and hip problems. If you can take fifteen minutes to take a walk outside, the effect will be even greater.

6. Don’t get messy

For many people, an untidy workstation increases feelings of stress. Deal with it. The time you take to tidy up will be more than compensated by subsequent increases in your efficiency. Getting your area tidy will give you an immediate sense of control.

7. Smart snacking

Junk food, missed meals and hurried snacking can build up stress levels. Try to Eat Mindfully. If you cannot take the time for a nutritious and relaxing lunch break, at least choose healthy snacks, so you can feel virtuous. Drink plenty of fresh water and try nuts, fruit, dried fruit and raw vegetables.

8. Bottling up your anger...

… is one of the things that is strongly implicated in heart disease. Let off steam by having a rant from time to time but choose that time carefully. Do it with the right person at the right time: a trusted friend, outside of work hours. Remember, if you spend too much of your home life moaning or being angry, you will damage one of your most powerful stress-busting assets: your relationships. Invest time in strengthening them, with kind words and thoughtful actions.

9. Stress is a part of success

We all need something to spur us along, so recognise stress as a part of the process. However, don’t get into the game of taking on more, just to prove you can. It’s easy to over-step your limit and find it hard to step back. When you cannot escape stress at the end of the day it’s time to make a change.

10. Dwelling on failure and setbacks

When you dwell on your setbacks and failures, you inevitably notice every little failing. It can quickly become a destructive cycle. Focus on your successes and what you have achieved to give you a sense of control. Celebrate your successes to replace feelings of stress with a sense of pride. When you do suffer setbacks, see them as temporary and focus on the resources you have that can help you resolve them and regain control.

Stress-busting tips

Feeling the pressure? Try these tips for starters:

1. Reward yourself

Make sure you realise exactly what those hours tolling in front of Excell, InDesign or your CMS are adding up to. After you’ve paid your bills, finished a project or signed off on a task – treat yourself. It can be as simple as a coffee, or as grand as a holiday – do what’s right for you.

2. Get social

Make sure you get out and chat to those in the same boat as you as well as stay in touch with your friends. Work for yourself? Perhaps a co-working space could help. Need to network? Club Workspace is home to hundreds of ambitious entrepreneurs and freelancers striving to make their mark on the capital. Meet up and exchange ideas at the regular networking events held across co-working clubs in London.

3. Celebrate every success you have

Playing down your successes can leave you feeling low. Make sure you shout out about the good things that are happening in your business and be proud of what you’ve achieved. You can do this on social or your website, or even in a company update meeting, just make sure you note the success.

4. Exercise

An easy way to get those infamous endorphins chugging around your body is to get out there and do some exercise. But you don’t need to don your lycra, just walk around the block or up the escalator. A healthy body means a healthy mind – and you can even workout at your desk!

5. Make a list

There’s nothing better than ticking a task off your to-do list. Some prefer a Post-It, others a project management system which lets you write checklists and collaborate with your team. Basecamp or Trello are a great place to start. Prone to procrastination? Read this.

6. Have a side project

It’s always good to keep up your side projects even if they’re not bringing in the big bucks. Whether it’s doodling, volunteering or researching alternative projects, an afternoon a week to daydream is invaluable.

Feeling productive?

Want more expert advice? Read ‘What makes a great place to work?’, where we explore the possibility of the perfect office. Or you could take a look at designing an office with productivity in mind: ‘What’s the optimal office space design for productivity?’ Looks into how you can design a space to get the most out of the working day.

You can also discover more articles like this one on Workspace’s Community section, find out more about our customers, our spaces and explore our events calendar.