United Kingdom

What are the causes of stress and what helps employees?

October 2017


Employers have a legal duty to protect the health, safety and welfare of their employees, including minimising the risk of stress-related illness or injury. But to do this successfully, it's important to understand the causes of stress and the support available to employees.

Given we all have our own personal stress thresholds, influenced by factors such as our personality and training, there's no simple list of causes and effect with work-related stress. Indeed, the psychologists have tussled with work-related stress theory for decades, with contemporary thought recognising a more active role for the individual in the way they interact with their work environment.

Risk factors

As a result of this work, a series of psychosocial risk factors have been determined for work-related stress. These relate to the way work is designed, organised, and managed, but also the economic and social context of work. As such they include job insecurity, high demands, work intensity, emotional demands, lack of autonomy, poor social relationships, and poor leadership.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has also undertaken work in this area. Its Management Standards (1) highlight six key areas of work design that, if not properly managed, can be primary sources of work-related stress. These are:

  • Demands - workload, work patterns and work environment
  • Control - how much say the employee has in their work
  • Support - the encouragement, sponsorship and resources provided by the organisation, line management and colleagues
  • Relationships - promoting positive working
  • Role - whether people understand their role within the organisation
  • Change - how organisational change is managed and communicated

Perhaps unsurprisingly, when research is carried out in this area, different risk factors top the charts. For instance, work intensity and the nature of the tasks performed are the most common work-related psychosocial risks in research commissioned by Eurofound and the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (2), while the HSE puts workload pressures and a lack of managerial support as the biggest risks.

Employee support

Supporting employees is essential. As we move more and more towards a service economy, employees are increasingly faced with new and unexpected challenges in the workplace. An ability to deal with this uncertainty is even more important.

On top of this, it's also important to recognise that individuals can have stressful personal lives, where issues such as relationship breakdowns, caring responsibilities and bereavements can pile on the pressure. Few of us are able to leave these stresses at home and not carry them with us to the workplace.

Three main lines of support are available to employees, with these categorised according to the stage in the process when the intervention takes place, as follows:

  • Primary

These are your preventative interventions aimed at modifying or eliminating the sources of stress in the work environment. They might include better work design, improved communications around change and more support from managers.

  • Secondary

These are interventions such as mental health first aid training and wellbeing days that are more concerned with building resilience in employees. They focus on identifying and managing work-related stress by increasing awareness and bolstering employees' stress management capabilities.

  • Tertiary

The final set of interventions focuses on the treatment, rehabilitation and recovery process of workers who suffer from work-related stress. They can include workplace counselling and private medical insurance.

The right mix

A robust mental health strategy will incorporate all three forms of intervention. Prevention is the number one aim but, as some stress is inevitable either within the workplace or an employee's personal life, it's essential to help them build their capabilities to cope with stress as well as providing access to treatment to act as a safety net.

While this is the ideal, employers tend to focus predominantly on the secondary and tertiary types of intervention such as employee assistance programmes (EAPs), mental health resilience training and private medical insurance. It's not surprising really as these are the easiest interventions to offer.

But while they can be useful, and studies have found a modest improvement in stress in the short-term, they do have some shortcomings.

Take an EAP as an example. These are often regarded as a solution to stress in the workplace but they can only really provide short-term counselling. Employees with more complex needs, such as those requiring a higher level or a longer period of care, won't receive the support they need. In addition, EAPs have a very low utilisation rate, suggesting they don't always reach the employees that need them.

Prevention is better than cure

Studies in the sources below have also shown that, following these secondary and tertiary interventions, there is little change in factors such as job satisfaction or blood pressure. There are even concerns they might exacerbate the problem by raising awareness of a psychosocial risk the employee is exposed to and unable to alter.

Conversely, although there's limited research comparing primary interventions to secondary and tertiary interventions, the results of existing studies below have been consistently positive, especially when it comes to the longer-term benefits.

Given this, while it's important to provide employees with access to all three types of intervention, employers should consider shifting their focus from resilience building and treatment and invest more in prevention. Removing and eliminating sources of stress in the workplace could deliver significant benefits.

(1) http://www.hse.gov.uk/stress/standards/index.htm

(2) https://www.eurofound.europa.eu/publications/report/2014/eu-member-states/working-conditions/psychosocial-risks-in-europe-prevalence-and-strategies-for-prevention



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