United Kingdom

What is work-related stress? What are the issues to organisations and what's the legislation?

May 2018

Figures from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) show just how big a problem work-related stress is in the UK. The latest statistics from its Labour Force Survey show that 12.5 million working days were lost due to this condition in 2016/17, with it representing 40% of work-related ill-health cases and 49% of working days lost due to ill health. Drilling down, this equates to an average of 23.8 days lost per case.

These findings are supported by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development's latest survey on health and wellbeing at work. This report found that stress accounts for 22% of long-term absence, on a par with mental ill health.

Given the scale of the problem, it translates into a huge financial drain on the economy. Conservatively estimated at a £3.6 billion cost to the UK alone in 2010/11 (HSE), the current figure is likely to be higher given the reported increase in stress-related absences since then.

Defining work-related stress

To begin to address this issue, it's essential to understand exactly what work-related stress is. The HSE defines it as an adverse reaction to excessive pressures or other types of demand.

This definition is extended by the European Commission. Its guidance on work-related stress defines it as 'a pattern of emotional, cognitive, behavioural and physiological reactions to adverse and noxious aspects of work content, work organisation and work environment'.

As the term stress can be bandied around fairly indiscriminately, it's also important to recognise the difference between stress and challenge in the work context. Challenges can energise workers and is important for healthy and productive work; it's what the European Commission refers to as the spice of life. But, when these work demands cannot be met, this challenge transforms into work-related stress, or the kiss of death to run with the European Commission's analogies.

Importantly, and adding to the problem for employers, there's no set threshold where challenge turns into stress. Some people will thrive in certain situations, while others might struggle.

Research has found that our own personal stress threshold is influenced by a number of very individual psychosocial factors. These can include your social support network, attitudes, past training and personality.

However, to support the need for interventions around work-related stress, scientific evidence has found that certain working conditions pose hazards to most people. Indeed the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work states that work-related stress is a symptom of an organisational problem and not individual weakness.

Issues for employers

Although work-related stress isn't a disease in itself, if an employee is left to cope with excessive pressure for too long, it can lead to a broad range of mental and physical health problems.

The first signs that an employee may be suffering from work-related stress often manifest themselves in the workplace. These can include issues with work performance and behaviour as well as physical symptoms such as headaches, tiredness, hand tremors and rapid weight changes. In addition, it can also significantly increase the risk of injury through occupational accidents. Longer-term, this stress can contribute to both psychological and physical health conditions such as hypertension, cardiovascular disease and depression. Musculoskeletal disorders can also develop as a result of stress, which is easy to understand given how being stressed can cause people to tense up and move around less. In fact, conservative estimates have suggested that anything from 50% to 80% of all physical diseases are stress-related in origin.

All of these factors are a financial headache for employers too. We've already seen that a staggering 12.5m working days were lost to work-related stress in 2016/17, but if your employees are suffering, chances are you'll see increased costs and reduced productivity too.

Legal responsibilities

While the moral and business reasons are enough for most employers to want to take it seriously, there are also legal responsibilities to consider when it comes to work-related stress.

In the UK, employers have a duty under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 and the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 to protect the health, safety and welfare of their employees at work, including minimising the risk of stress-related illness or injury.

The actions required to do this will vary but include carrying out stress risk assessments and managing work activities to ensure employees are not exposed to excessive stress. Where employees are already exhibiting signs of work-related stress it may also be necessary to develop an individual action plan to protect them.

Understanding how work-related stress manifests itself, and the implications for employers from a moral, business and legislative perspective, is an important step in tackling this issue in the workplace.

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