Acas, along with many other organisations, has commented on the link between the economic climate and the nation's mental wellbeing. It therefore comes as no surprise to read the new figures from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, showing that for the very first time stress is the most common cause of long-term sickness absence for both manual and non-manual workers.

It's not hard to make the connection - when jobs are under threat, pay packets are being frozen, and workloads are increasing, employees' mental health is bound to be affected.

So what can we do to reduce stress? Acas offers the following tips:

  1. remind yourself about the chief stressors at work - things like work overload, lack of job control and poor relationships - and what measures you can take to combat them. Many organisations already have policies in place for dealing with stress - see the guide on pdf icon Advisory booklet - Stress at work [582kb].
  2. manage absence more effectively. You won't know how your employees' are feeling unless you talk to them. The key to effective absence management is early intervention, so make sure that, as a minimum, you hold your return to work discussions - see the guide on Managing attendance and employee turnover.
  3. make sure your line managers know how to respond to signs of stress. They may need the right training to deal with issues around bullying and performance management in particular and holding difficult conversations in general - see the guide on Front line managers.

The causes and triggers of stress have always been present in the workplace and are not solely caused by current economic conditions. Employers have a duty under health and safety law to assess and take measures to control risks from work-related stress. Also under common law employers need to take reasonable care to ensure the health and safety of their employees'.

Podcast: Listen to Jane Bird, former Director of Good Practice Services and Acas Adviser Kate Nowicki talk about stress in the workplace [mp3 format, 6.04mb]. The podcast covers how to spot the signs of and manage stress, as well as describing a stress-related workplace project Acas carried out. A transcript of the podcast is also available to download in Word format:word icon Jane Bird's stress podcast transcript [33kb].

Questions and answers

Why is stress so important?

Although work-related stress is not an illness, the psychological impact can contribute to problems with ill health. As well as anxiety and depression, stress has been associated with heart disease, back pain and gastrointestinal illnesses.

Although the great majority of UK workplaces do not have a serious stress problem, the incidence of work-related stress appears widespread. According to the Labour Force Survey (LFS), in 2007/08 an estimated 442 000 individuals in Britain believed that they were experiencing work-related stress at a level that was making them ill. Research from the LFS indicates that self-reported work-related stress, depression or anxiety accounted for an estimated 13.5 million lost working days in Britain in 2007/08.

What causes stress?

Stress can be triggered by organisational or individual factors. Organisational factors include poor communication, bad working environment and ineffective job design. Individual factors include personal problems such as bereavement, money worries and illness.

Work-related stress (WRS) can also be caused where there is 'a mismatch between job requirements and the individual's abilities, resources or needs'. These can be categorised as:

  • Demands: employees often become overloaded if they cannot cope with the amount of work or type of work they are asked to do
  • Control: employees can feel disaffected and perform poorly if they have no say over how and when they do their work
  • Support: levels of sick absence often rise if employees feel they cannot talk to managers about issues that are troubling them
  • Relationships: a failure to build relationships based on good behaviour and trust can lead to problems related to discipline, grievances and bullying
  • Role: employees will feel anxious about their work and the organisation if they don't know what is expected of them
  • Change: change needs to be managed effectively or it can lead to huge uncertainty and insecurity.

How do I deal with stress?

Some forms of stress can be prevented. For example, the kind of organisational stress caused by poor management or the lack of company policies for dealing with bullying or discipline. You can also help with individual stress, which relates to your employees' relationships or personal problems, with the right kind of understanding and support. You can also address the various forms of work-related stress (WRS) systematically:

  • Demands: pay attention to the way jobs are designed, training needs and whether it is possible for employees to work more flexible hours
  • Control: think about how employees are actively involved in decision making, the contribution made by teams and how reviewing performance can help identify strengths and weaknesses
  • Support: give employees the opportunity to talk about the issues causing stress, provide a sympathetic ear and keep them informed
  • Relationships: check your policies for handling grievances, unsatisfactory performance, poor attendance and misconduct, and for tackling bullying and harassment. Ensure staff are aware of policies, and that line managers are trained to recognise potential problems at an early stage and try to deal with them in an informal way to avoid increased stress for individuals
  • Role: review your induction process, ensure accurate job descriptions and maintain a close link between individual targets and organisational goals
  • Change: plan ahead so that change doesn't come out of the blue. Consult with employees so they have a real input, and work together to solve problems.

Can Acas help?

Acas may be able to help you create procedures to minimise stress in your workplace. With over 30 years of experience, working with organisations of all sizes, we have expert advisers and services to suit your situation.

Stress in the Workplace - Acas business solutions

We can visit your organisation to help you understand what needs to be done to address a range of issues related to stress management and the identification of critical issues in your workplace and then work with you to develop practical solutions. Find out more.

We also offer training courses to help managers in your organisation.

View course details and availability:

Workshops, projects and business solutions

Let us know how we can help