Avoiding and dealing with stress in the workplace

27 August 2014

According to Harvard public health professors Murray and Lopez “By 2020 depression will rank second only to heart disease as the leading cause of disability world-wide”. 

Robin Williams’ tragic suicide recently is a timely reminder that employers ignore mental health issues at their peril.

There have been reports that  Robin's comedy routines in advance of his death were littered with suicide jokes, which suggests that the early warning signs of his vulnerability and mental health condition were there. So what warning signs should employers be alert to and what should they do to tackle stress?


Depression affects people in different ways and can cause a wide variety of symptoms.

They range from lasting feelings of sadness and hopelessness, to losing interest in the things formerly enjoyed and feeling very tearful. Many people with depression also have symptoms of anxiety and stress.

It is widely assumed that people suffering with depression may well turn to drugs and alcohol, but it is less well known that alcoholism and drug addiction can in themselves cause depression.

Whilst alcohol and drug addiction cannot amount to a disability, a physical or mental impairment caused by alcohol or drug addiction, such as depression or liver disease can constitute a disability which employers need to take account of in terms of their legal obligations.

So what is stress? The Health & Safety Executive (HSE) defines it as “the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them”. There is a big difference between positive pressure, which creates a buzz and adrenaline surge and leads to productivity and results and the harmful negative effects of pressure, which goes beyond a person’s ability to cope. Employers need to be trained how to recognise the difference between positive and negative pressure and how different employees react to it.

The HSE has identified the following main causes of stress at work, of which all managers should be aware:

  • The demands made on employees;
  • The level of control employees have over how they carry out their work;
  • The support employees receive from their managers;
  • The clarity of an employee’s role in their organisation; and
  • The nature of relationships at work.

Guidance for reducing workplace stress

Employers are still less comfortable dealing with someone with mental health problems than someone with a physical disability. This needs to change.
First line managers should be trained in people skills and how to manage common mental health problems.

Secondly cultural attitudes to stress need to move into the modern age. Employees are often concerned about the stigma attached to mental health conditions. The fact that high profile senior executives and celebrities are now being open about their own mental health issues, such as Horta-Osario should be used as positive examples to encourage others to do the same and enable  staff to get the support  they need before they become seriously unwell. 

Employees need to feel that they will be supported by their employer through any period of mental ill health and that their career progression and professional reputation will not suffer as a result.

Below are five top tips for employers to follow to ensure a culture which guards against workplace stress:

  • Employees should feel valued and involved in their organisation. Managers should have open lines of communication with staff.
  • Jobs should be flexible and well designed. Managers should inform and consult employees on changes that are likely to affect them before they take place and should allow employees to ask questions before, during and after workplace change so that they feel involved in the change, buy into it and feel that their opinions are valued and respected.
  • Managers should tackle absence, promote an attendance culture and help people back to work by using appropriate health services i.e. occupational health and return to work interviews;
  • Employee assistance programmes, such as confidential telephone or in person counselling should be available.
  • Managers should “walk the walk” not just “talk the talk” and should actively promote a healthy lifestyle themselves by having a good work life balance, managing their working hours and using their full holiday entitlement and taking lunch breaks. Managers should not manage by the adage “do what I say, not what I do!”

Employers can identify the risk factors for stress identified by the HSE by conducting informal talks with staff, performance appraisals, focus groups, return to work interviews following sickness absence or by collecting and monitoring sickness absence data, performance data, turnover rates and questionnaires.

Losing valued staff as a result of stress is expensive not only in terms of any absence time but also potentially in terms of the disability discrimination claim they might bring if employers have contributed to their condition. It is important that employers  have a genuinely supportive culture and not just policies that are applied inconsistently by different managers with their own potential subconscious bias about employees with mental health issues. No employer wants to experience a Robin Williams situation in their employee ranks nor to find they are partly responsible for such. This can be avoided  if line managers are adequately trained both to recognise the warning signs of stress, know how to communicate with employees about this and if employees are given the necessary support to enable them to recover and return to work as soon as possible.

An edited version of this blog first appeared in HR Magazine in August 2014. 

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