H & S Guidance – Stress

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Occupational stress is generating increasing public and media concern. Although there are no precise figures on the prevalence of occupational stress, it is widely held that the problem is substantial and increasing. This is supported by a number of surveys that suggest that occupational stress is now seen as a major contributor to overall illness and sickness absence in the workplace. Legal judgements recently have awarded damages in stress-related cases.


Stress is the reaction people have to excessive demands or pressures. In the workplace it arises when people try to cope with the tasks, responsibilities or other types of pressure connected with their jobs but find difficulty, strain or worry in doing so. Stress triggers complex changes in the body’s processes, causing physiological changes and affecting the way people think, feel and behave i.e.

Physiological changes

Behavioural changes

  • increased heart rate, perspiration·
  • dry mouth·
  • headache, dizziness, blurred vision·
  • lowered resistance to infections·
  • aching neck and shoulders·
  • skin rashes
people becoming anxious, irritable, drink more alcohol, smoke more, loss of sleep, reduced motivation

People experience stress in different ways and to different degrees. Much depends on how individuals cope or think they cope and the extent of support that is available to them. The stress response is not in itself an illness – it’s effects often being short-lived and causing no lasting harm. However, where workplace pressures are intense, sustained for some time or are simply beyond the capacity of the person to cope stress can lead to actual mental and/or physical ill-health.

Where such a risk exists, then stress and the workplace pressures causing it become a legitimate health and safety concern.


There are a number of aspects of work that may give rise to stress:



General management and culture of the organisationLack of clear company objectives and values

Poor communication

Lack of employee consultation/involvement during periods of organisational change

Lack of management support and development for staff

Role in organisationEmployee’s roles within the organisation unclear

Conflicting objectives and priorities

High level of responsibility for people

Career developmentCareer uncertainty

Career stagnation

Poor status

Job insecurity or redundancy

Decision making/controlLow participation in decision-making

Lack of control over work

Little decision-making in work

Relationships at workSocial or physical isolation

Poor relationships with superiors

Interpersonal conflict, including

bullying, violence, sexual or racial harassment.

Home/work issuesConflicting demands of work and home

Low levels of support at home

Dual career problems

Job designIll-defined work

High uncertainty in work

Lack of variety or short work cycles

Fragmented or meaningless work

Under-use of skill

Constant exposure to client/customer groups

Workload/work paceLack of control over pacing

Work overload or under load

High levels of pacing or time pressure

Work scheduleShift working

Inflexible/overburden some work schedule

Unpredictable work hours

Unsocial work hours


There is no specific legislation on controlling stress at work. However, employers have a general duty under the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, that their workplaces are safe and healthy. Also, under the Management of Health and Safety Regulations 1992 employers are obliged to assess the nature and extent of risks to health in their workplace and base their control measures on it.

Employers have a legal duty to take reasonable care to ensure that health is not put at risk through excessive and sustained levels of stress arising from work activities i.e. to treat stress like any other health hazard.


  1. Good management – including ‘regard for people’ attitudes.
  2. Ensure appropriately open and understanding attitudes to stress.
  3. Ensure jobs are ‘do-able’, matching the job with the person in it.
  4. Management style – consistent, concerned, communicative and caring.
  5. Managing periods of change so as to reduce uncertainty.
  6. Providing help, support and training.
  7. Monitoring stress levels – perhaps through a combination of sickness absence monitoring and periodic anonymous staff surveys.

Some of the things that can help in a positive approach to stress reduction are:

General management and culture

– Clear company objectives

– Good communication

– Close employee involvement, particularly during periods

of organisational change

– Good management support and appropriate training and development of staff

Decision-making and planning

– Opportunities for staff to contribute ideas, in particular in the planning and organisation of  their own jobs

Employees’ role in the organisation

– Clearly defined objectives and responsibilities linked to organisational objectives

– Support for those with high level of responsibility for the welfare and well-being of people

Relationships at work

– Training in interpersonal skills

– Effective systems for dealing with interpersonal conflict, bullying and racial or sexual harassment, including:

agreed grievance procedure & proper investigation of complaints

Job design

– Well designed tasks & responsibilities

– Plenty of variety avoiding short work cycles

– Proper use of skills

– Proper training for those dealing constantly with the public or client groups

– Proper hazards control

Work schedule

– Flexible work schedules

– Planned and agreed work hours

Workload/work pace

– Targets that are stretching but reasonable


1.Do you recognise occupational stress as a legitimate health and safety issue? YES/NO

2.In running your business, where necessary, do you seek to minimise occupational stress through the following:

  • Development of an appropriate management culture (communicative, participative, supportive)? YES/NO
  • Involvement of staff in decision-making and planning? YES/NO
  • Appropriate role for, and support of, employees in the organisation? YES/NO
  • Optimising relationships, interpersonal skills etc. at work? YES/NO
  • Flexible work schedules, planned and agreed hours of work? YES/NO
  • Appropriately considered job design? YES/NO
  • Stretching but reasonable work targets? YES/NO

3.If necessary, do you monitor occupational stress (or its possible indicators)? YES/NO


HELA Circular 81/4 – Work Related Stress. www.hse.gov.uk/lau/lacs/81-4.htm

Booklet HSG 116 Stress at Work – a guide for employers (HSE) (1999)ISBN 0-7176-0733-X.

Leaflet INDG341. Tackling work-related stress a guide for employees (HSE).

Leaflet ‘Work Related Stress- A Short Guide’ (HSE) INDG281 (11/99)