How employers should manage workplace stress

There is a growing need for employers to adopt a formal policy to tackle workplace stress.


  • Employers should play a proactive role in managing stress in the workplace.
  • Line managers can play an important part in stress management, but they must be given suitable training.
  • Employers should encourage staff to take responsibility for their own physical and mental wellbeing.
  • There are countless legal cases illustrating the perils of employers overlooking workplace stress.

There are countless legal cases illustrating the perils of employers overlooking workplace stress. In Young v The Post Office in 2002, a post office worker was awarded £94,000 in damages after the court found his managers had failed to support him after he suffered a stress-related illness caused by his work. And more recently, France Telecom was put under the spotlight after more than 30 of its employees committed suicide between 2008 and 2009, allegedly because of workplace pressure.

But not much appears to have changed since these cases, which is remarkable given the increased pressure the economic downturn has put on employees across all market sectors.

Employee Benefits Healthcare research, published in June 2013, reveals that just 46% of respondents have strategies in place to combat workplace stress.

There are many possible explanations for this finding. For example, many employers simply refuse to accept there is an issue of stress in their organisation, while others recognise the issue but do not take it seriously.

Challenges for employers

Of course, there are also challenges facing employers. First, it is difficult for HR and benefits teams to persuade their finance colleagues of the need to invest in a new strategy at the best of times, but never more so than when the return on investment is so difficult to measure.

Elizabeth Cotton, a senior lecturer in human resource management at Middlesex University, says: “I think mental health is following the same trajectory as corporate social responsibility in that only some [employers] will be interested in it seriously, and they will be interested in it because of some bottom-line argument, either a financial one or, in the case of public sector [employers], because they have a legal duty of care to their employees.”

Second, it is only when employees disclose that they are suffering stress-related symptoms that employers can respond accordingly, and disclosures remain low because of the continuing sensitivity of the issue, particularly within the workplace.

Cotton adds: “Mental health is one of the last taboos in the workplace. It is extraordinarily stigmatised.”

So what are proactive employers doing to help support employees suffering from stress?

Online tools available

A number of organisations are working with PruHealth, which has developed online tools, packaged as the Vitality mental wellbeing suite, that can assess employee stress, psychological wellbeing, resilience and social support.

Support is then offered through a Living Life online life skills course that uses cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and consists of modules, worksheets and e-books.

Doctor Katie Tryon, head of clinical vitality at PruHealth, says the online nature of the tools, which allow remote access from home or at work, help employers and employees overcome the challenge of anonymity.

“There are two big issues that we found when looking into stress,” she says. “One is the taboo around talking about it. Employers and employees just don’t want to talk about it. And it is interesting to see how nervous employers are about opening that conversation with their employees.

“Secondly, there is a lack of [employees] wanting to seek help because of the lack of perceived anonymity of the help they receive. People would like to seek help, but the biggest barrier is lack of anonymity and colleagues finding out that they are struggling.”

Train line managers

Legal and General, meanwhile, is working with employers to train line managers to deal with workplace stress management.

Vanessa Sallows, underwriting and benefits director (group protection) at Legal and General, says line managers are often not given any training to identify stress. The provider’s training involves giving line managers the courage to have initial conversations with staff suffering with stress so the manager can then liaise with the employer’s occupational health team, she says.

“Line managers are not there to manage stress,” Sallows points out. “They are not specialists in such matters.”

Martin Palmer, director of the Centre for Stress Management, recommends that employers should identify particular problem areas of their business and direct their resources accordingly. “Why would employers spend resources and money in an area that hasn’t got a stress problem?” he says. “Instead of just ‘doing’ stress management, [employers] need to assess it.”

The Health and Safety Executive offers a range of tools with which employers can undertake a risk assessment to identify areas of their business affected by stress. This assessment should underpin an organisation’s stress policy, serving as a key document for any employer committed to combating workplace stress.

Keep policies short

Palmer also warns employers to keep policies short. “I’ve seen some policies that are thicker than a text book,” he says. “The idea of a stress policy is something simple that everyone can read and understand.”

But Cotton believes cultural change should be the starting point for employers. “It’s all well and good having a wellbeing strategy, for example, but if managers are bullying their employees, or if [employers] allow bullying to carry on, [the employer] has completely undermined the strategy,” she says.

“[Employers] cannot be responsible in just one area of their work; they need to follow this through across all their policies and management meetings.”

As part of this cultural change, employers should also encourage employees to take responsibility for their own health, both physical and mental, for example by joining walking groups or by simply ensuring that they take a full lunch break. But this requires employers to communicate their support for regular breaks.

Cotton says employers should assume that a certain number of their workforce have a problem with stress, and should implement preventative measures to support them. This should extend to employers terminating the employment of managers found guilty of bullying staff, she says.

Viewpoint: Andrew Kinder, chair, UK Employee Assistance Professionals Association

Andrew Kinder -  UK employee assistance Professionals association

Ill health through workplace stress can result in various behaviours and actions, ranging from increased levels of regular or unexplained absence, poor concentration, low motivation, anxiety, excessive frustration, mood swings and becoming isolated from other team members.

When it comes to managing stress and its impact on the workplace, it is important that employers take a proactive approach. There are many techniques and preventative measures employers can take to manage stress.

Line managers have an important role to monitor the behaviour of their teams and identify potentially stressed staff. Naturally, they need to be equipped with the skills to identify the signs and symptoms of stress and understand how they can best use, for example, their employee assistance programme (EAP) to talk directly with an employee.

In one-to-ones or appraisal discussions, a manager can check if employees have the support and resources to do what is expected of them before they get stressed. The culture of an organisation also affects stress in a workplace. Are people encouraged to raise issues of concern? And are they aware of the support available to manage issues contributing to workplace stress, such as their EAP or occupational health teams?

[Employers] might not know all the answers to solving workplace stress, but a great place to start is by talking with staff. Use surveys to ask people how they are feeling and ask them to identify the factors in their job they think contribute to pressure. Work here needs to integrate with health and safety risk assessments that are carried out to identify staff groups with higher psychological risks.

So, getting feedback direct from staff and responding with a plan is invaluable and will put employers in a good position to do something positive about this issue. 

Case study: Quintiles introduced stress policy after increase in staff absence


As a medical research organisation, Quintiles takes the health and wellbeing of its staff seriously. It introduced its current stress management policy in 2012 as part of its holistic health and wellbeing strategy.

A driving factor behind the stress management policy was an increase in stress-related sickness absence. To address this, Quintiles formed a health management team, which concluded that the organisation should improve its approach to increase awareness of, and participation in, existing benefits.

Jacqui Riches, associate manager, employee wellness for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, says: “We already had some great things in place and they were being used very well, but what we wanted to do was really look at how we could view it from a different angle and make it even better.

“It wasn’t about identifying a void and then putting something in place. We realised we were doing really great things. What we wanted to do was re-market these.”

Benefits on offer include an employee assistance programme, online wellness workshops and seminars covering issues such as increasing emotional resilience.

The organisation has also taken steps to improve managers’ awareness of the programmes available to enable them to support employees in preventing stress, and dealing with stressful situations, as well as managing staff through stress-related absence. However, Quintiles also recognised that managers, too, could feel under pressure from work-related issues.

To overcome this, the organisation launched two health and absence toolkits, one for managers and one for the general workforce.

It also took steps to address physical ailments that were known to lead to stress. This included holding seminars aimed at reducing backache and soft tissue injuries.