Stress and Employers – How employers can get smart about stress in the workplace

Stress and employers - stress at work

Stress is a word that trips lightly off the lips. Stress is discussed as if it is an inevitability in modern life and work, a common-to-all ailment that most should be able to shrug off or cope with.

However, stress is not the same as pressure

Pressure at work, and in life, is certainly inevitable. Stress is a reaction to pressure, and it is when this reaction is extreme that it can become a very real employee health issue.

The link between employers and stress, pressure and performance

There is an optimal amount of pressure that enables people to perform well. This has been known for more than a century, thanks to the work of two Edwardian psychologists. Yerkes and Dodson defined a bell curve model suggesting that some pressure stimulates, helps people to stretch and aids performance. Too little pressure can also be detrimental, leading to boredom, disinterest and lack of motivation.

So, some stress can be a positive and motivational influence, keeping us moving and achieving.  However, rising levels stress can negatively impact both mental and physical health, as it puts us under strain. As someone starts to feel unable to cope, they can edge towards what is often called burnout, with some growing health risks.

“Pressure can help to motivate people and may boost their energy and productivity levels but when pressure exceeds people’s ability to cope – and particularly when there is no respite – it can become a negative rather than a positive force”

Business in The Community – Wellbeing Toolkit

Stress is prevalent, and rising

More than 800,000 workers suffered from work-related stress, depression or anxiety in 2020/21, according to the most recent HSE data.

Stress has a direct cost to employers, as well as impact on their staff. CIPD health and wellbeing at work research in 2021 suggested that stress continues to be one of the main causes of short- and long-term absence. 79% of organisations in that survey reported some stress-related absences in the past year, rising to 91% of organisations with more than 250 staff.

Stress has been on the rise, thanks to the COVID pandemic.  65% of people have reported feeling more stressed than ever since the start of restrictions, suggested a large survey by the Stress Management Association.

Work-related stress, depression or anxiety accounts for 44% of work-related ill health and 54% of working days lost

HSE 2019

Drivers of stress at work

Work is unquestionably a driver of stress for some individuals.  Workers cite several common stress causes, which include (but are not limited to):

  • Being unable to cope with the demands of a role
  • Lack of information, support, and guidance to do a job
  • Not really understanding a role and its responsibilities
  • Workplace relationships that are fractious or bullying

Some roles are felt to be more stressful than others.

Sometimes this can seem self-evident. Stress is a known issue among those who drive for a living, such as lorry and delivery drivers, for example. Many healthcare and social services roles carry enormous responsibility for people’s life and health. They are understandably stressful as a result. This has only intensified during the pandemic. 

In fact, Labour Force Survey data suggests that professional occupations of all kinds have statistically higher rates of stress than other groups. That includes health professionals, teachers, protective service and customer service roles that are also common in the public sector.

Employers must monitor stress for another good reason too.  If stress is a known hazard for a role, then it falls directly under their requirement to assess, and mitigate, that risk.

Spotting signs and symptoms of stress among employees

Stress is “the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressure or other types of demand placed upon them”


It is vital for employers to not only make an effort to understand the pressures that employees are under. They must manage those pressures to ensure that they do not drive stress.

Knowing the signs and symptoms of stress among your employees is essential. So is recognising that these can be mental, physical, or behavioural. 

It should not be up to employees to self-diagnose stress or be the first to use the term, before employers take action.

It is important that all managers are aware of stress symptoms, and to guide their staff towards help. Line managers and team managers uniquely able to spot and identify worrying changes or signals.

stress at work mental health

Mental health reactions can include:

  • Anxiety disorders including panic and worry
  • Difficulty concentrating and remembering
  • Struggles in making decisions
  • Sleeplessness and consequent fatigue

stress at work physical symptoms

Physical health symptoms of stress can include:

  • Chest pain or a faster heartbeat
  • Muscular tension, aches and pains
  • Headaches and dizziness
  • Stomach and digestion problems
  • Jaw tension and teeth grinding
  • Sexual problems
stress at work behaviours

Behavioural changes can include:

  • Being irritable and snappy
  • Avoiding certain people, places, or situations
  • Drinking or smoking more
  • Eating too much – or too little
  • Sleeping too little – or too much

Stress and employers – How can employers get smart about stress in the workplace?

► Each April there is a Stress Awareness Month which offers UK employers a good opportunity to encourage managers and teams to discuss stress and its causes. 

► Take full advantage of the tools available via the HSE Stress page, which includes a guide to conducting a stress risk assessment in your organisation.

► Create better overall mental health and wellbeing strategies in your organisation. The BITC Mental Health Toolkit for Employers provides a framework that spans cultural, legal and practical factors to putting better support in place for employee mental health, including stress.

► Provide managers with helpful resources to guide staff towards when people report feeling somewhat stressed, such as:

► Ensure managers are able to refer more extreme cases of stress appropriately and swiftly – whether that is to internal Occupational Health resources, or to stress management or mental health services available within Employee Assistance Programmes and corporate healthcare schemes. Encouraging people to see their GP is often a great first step, but employers can and should do more than this.

► ISMA, the International Stress Management Association is a charity set up to help promote stress prevention and wellbeing. It provides a number of training courses, workshops and workplace stress solutions for employers.

► Get engaged in the International Stress Awareness Week which occurs each November. Concurrent with this, employers might wish to explore the ISMA Global Stress and Wellbeing Summit.

Have you read our other Employer Health Topics articles? Check out employers and cancer, employers and blood pressure, employers and smoking, and employers and obesity.