Stress at work is a common issue and one of the biggest causes of long-term absence from work.  To mark Stress Awareness Month this April, Helen Clay, Head of HR at Bray & Bray, outlines the responsibilities of employers to help minimise employee stress and provides some helpful tips for easing workplace stress.

Stress is our body’s response to mental or emotional pressure and can affect anyone at any time. But when too much stress builds up, it can be difficult to break out of the ‘fight or flight’ state, leaving us feeling overwhelmed.

Stress in the workplace

According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), stress is the ‘adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them.’ The HSE defines six main areas that can lead to work-related stress if they are not managed properly. These include demands, control, support, relationships, role and change.

Managing workplace stress is key to employees’ overall mental and physical health as well as employee retention, productivity and engagement with a business.

What are employers’ responsibilities?

Employers have a duty of care towards all employees, meaning they must do their best to prevent workers from coming to harm in the workplace.

There are two key pieces of legislation governing occupational health and safety in the UK. The primary piece of legislation is the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 that sets out a universal duty which:

  • employers have towards employees and members of the public
  • employees have to themselves and to each other
  • certain self-employed have towards themselves and others

Health risks are identified and mitigated through risk assessments conducted with more than five employees. The same duty of care applies to employees working from home. Employers should conduct thorough reviews of the home working environment and equipment to ensure the set-up is fit for purpose.

In addition to health and safety precautions, employers should also take measures to prevent employees from experiencing excessive stress in their day-to-day jobs. These include providing employees with adequate training, increasing support for staff during periods of change and uncertainty, and training line managers to identify potential causes of stress in their teams.

The second key piece of legislation governing occupational health and safety is concerning working hours. Working hours in the UK are governed by the Working Time Regulations 1998 which was established to limit the number of hours employees can work each week.

The regulations limit the working week to an average of 48 hours (although there is an opt-out), and the working day to an average of 8 hours. They also give workers the right to paid leave and specified rest breaks.

The procedures outlined above are required of employers by law, but there are many other measures businesses can put in place to help employees manage their stress levels.

Tips for easing workplace stress

As an employer, it is important to be vigilant and look out for signs of stress in the workplace. There are helpful tips for spotting signs of employee stress on the HSE website here.

Stress is best approached in a proactive way and in the early stages so that it can be addressed before the issues escalates. Aim to encourage open, honest communication with your employees and be as approachable as possible.

Inviting an employee for an informal chat away from the workplace and interruptions may help you better understand the extent to which the individual is feeling stressed and the possible cause(s). Ask open questions and give your employee adequate time to explain how they are feeling.

The Mental Health at Work Commitment is a simple framework for organisations to implement. Based on the ‘Thriving at Work’ review, it has six standards which provide a roadmap to achieving better mental health outcomes for employees:

  • Prioritise mental health in the workplace by developing and delivering a systematic programme of activity. This could include promoting and facilitating exercise, healthy eating, better sleep, mindfulness, and support networks
  • Proactively ensure work design and organisational culture drive positive mental health outcomes
  • Promote an open culture around mental health
  • Increase organisational confidence and capability
  • Provide mental health tools and support
  • Increase transparency and accountability through internal and external reporting

The Mental Health at Work website has a collection of free toolkits for employers and employees to access support and ideas to improve mental health in the workplace. You can find the resources here.

Speak to our HR experts

If you would like some support or guidance to help proactively manage employee stress or would like to know more about your responsibilities as an employer, Bray & Bray’s Employment & HR team is here to help.

Contact us here.