Last reviewed 12 May 2021

Conversations about work-related stress can be difficult to start. As many people return to work after a far-from-normal year, an expanded range of talking toolkits is now part of the arsenal designed to make awkward moments easier. Jon Herbert reports

Work-related stress can be defined as “the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them at work." Stress is not an illness, but rather a state.

However, if stress is excessive and prolonged, mental and physical illness can develop, which is why employers are advised to take the condition seriously.

Stress at work

Employees experience stress at work when they are not able to cope with pressures and associated issues. Employers have a responsibility for the health and safety of employees and should match their demands to employee skills and knowledge.

For example, employees can become stressed if they feel they lack the skills or time needed to meet tight deadlines. Planning, training and support can reduce both pressure and stress levels.

Stress also affects people differently — what stresses one person may not affect another. Factors such as skills, but also experience, age and disability, can shape an individual’s ability to cope.

Common signs to watch out for can include insomnia leading to tiredness, irritability, anger, low-esteem, high caffeine or alcohol consumption, poor work performance, feelings of low achievement, regular absences, high sickness rates, being accident-prone, plus cynical and defensive attitudes.

Talking toolkits — additions for the NHS, social care and construction

Another part of the arsenal available to employers, managers and team leaders is HSE’s expanded range of talking toolkits which now cover construction and include insights from within the NHS during the pandemic.

Toolkits pinpoint common root causes of workplace-related stress. They are designed to kick-start potentially difficult conversations with employees, plus the process of preventing and managing stress. Intended for small and medium-sized businesses, they also help larger organisations.

Talking toolkits can be an aid for demand planning and managing sickness absence, plus adjustments to assist staff return to, and stay at, work. They also help senior management make changes that do not add further causes of stress.

HR departments may use them when monitoring organisational stressors and developing effective interventions. Occupational health providers can use toolkits to help people who have been referred to them, and ensure consistency. As part of employee assistance programmes, toolkits can provide policy guidance and recommended information sources.

Reducing stress is good for everybody

Work-related stress accounts for some 57% of UK working days lost to ill-health. While it is not an employer’s responsibility to diagnose or treat stress medically, it is important to support troubled staff members as soon as possible.

However, employers are duty-bound to carry out a “risk of work-related stress” assessment which should include mitigating steps.

Talking toolkits are designed to help line managers hold initial conversations with employees as part of an employer’s strategy to prevent stress associated with the office or remote home workplace.

Employee wellbeing is paramount. However, the reported benefits for organisations and employers include increased productivity and staff retention, with matching falls in sickness absence.

Talking Toolkit

Several versions of the toolkit are now available online. They include:

Conversational gambits

Initiating a personal dialogue with confidence and trust is a key step, although it should not be an isolated response. To take the stress out of opening conversations, toolkits offer six templates. These cover: demands; control; support; relationships; role; and change.

As the links above show, each theme is designed to help managers/employers and employees talk freely about important stress-related issues and possible courses of action.

The first sheet in each template lists questions designed to prompt conversations about the causes of stress. The second sheet then helps managers to start developing ideas to tackle these causes.

Flexible formats

Because conversations are highly individual, no specific format is recommended. Employers can suggest meeting once a week or monthly, as suits best. Similarly, just one or all six suggested topics can be tackled together.

To add more flexibility, conversations can be part of a training day, or arranged confidentially to discuss personal problems.

Where both employers and their line managers are involved, enough time should be set aside for the two to talk fully. The toolkit approach relies on both managers and staff members feeling able to be talk openly and honestly.

The line manager approach should also be to listen rather than offer excuses or explanations. Action points and solutions must be agreed with employees. Talking and planning are the two priorities.

The conversations

The first conversation considers demands made on employees. Can they cope with job requirements? Are demands achievable? Do skills and abilities match job descriptions? Is the working environment suitable?

The second conversation considers control. Are employees consulted about work organisation? Do they have regular opportunities for discussion and input? Are they encouraged to use their skills and initiative? Are they consulted about wider issues affecting their work? Are new skills and challenges encouraged?

The third conversation looks at support. Staff should be given information and support by colleagues and managers. The organisation must have systems in place that back and encourage managers. Is it clear what support is available? Employees should also be given regular constructive feedback.

The fourth conversation covers relationships. Employees must not be bullied, harassed, or subjected to other inacceptable behaviour. Positive behaviour should be encouraged. Policies and procedures need to be in place. Managers have to be empowered to deal with bad behaviour, which employees must also be able to report.

The fifth conversation relates to role. Staff should understand their roles and responsibilities and be given clear information to help them do so. They must be able to raise concerns about any uncertainties and conflicts.

The final conversation tackles change. Employees need regular timely information about proposed changes, and the reasons for change. They should also have opportunities to influence change. When changes impact their work, they need appropriate training and support.

The next step

Once the six conversations are completed, and a comprehensive picture of the problem is emerging, solutions can be discussed. Throughout, the toolkits suggest possible ways of addressing key issues. There are also links to other services. The point is also made very clearly that employees should be encouraged to talk to a GP, trade union representative, or occupational health team.

Mental Health Awareness Week 2021

With more than a year of Covid-19 restrictions in mind, the theme of this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week in early May has been “nature”. The aim is to resonate with the stressful experiences of millions of people during pandemic lockdowns.

The Mental Health Organisation (MHO) says there is clear evidence that access to nature can boost good mental health (https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/campaigns/mental-health-awareness-week).

Single information point

A detailed introduction and briefing on all aspects of this very common condition is available at: Stress at Work: In-depth (https://app.croneri.co.uk/topics/stress-work/indepth?product=133).

This comprehensive topic covers stress management and control, duties and responsibilities, definitions, benefits of early action, stress at work policies, HSE management standards, risk assessment methodology, hazards, coping mechanisms, and many more essential issues.