What to do about stress at work

University of Bristol building in background with mirror maze and blossom in foreground

Opening up discussions about preventing, reducing and managing stress at work during Stress Awareness Month 

12 April 2021

April is recognised as Stress Awareness Month, and we’d like to use this opportunity to highlight and promote measures for preventing stress at work.

Work-related stress, depression and anxiety account for more than half of health problems at work: 51% of all work-related ill health cases and 55% of all working days lost due to work-related ill health, as reported by the HSE. The report also revealed that the education sector has rates of work-related stress, depression and anxiety that are higher than average.

The situation over the past year has amplified existing challenges and presented many new ones, so much so that in a Mental Health Foundation study of UK adults, 74% reported being so stressed they felt overwhelmed or unable to cope.

How the pandemic may impact on stress

A recent study by the Stress Management Society found that 65% of people in the UK felt more stressed since the COVID-19 restrictions began in March 2020. The research identified the main concerns as:

  • feelings of disconnection
  • uncertainty
  • a worrying loss of control

Earlier during Stress Awareness Month, the HSE highlighted that stress can be caused by some of the measures that safeguard against COVID-19, such as social distancing and working from home.

The HSE wrote: "Stress affects people differently – what stresses one person may not affect another. Factors like skills and experience, age or disability may all affect whether an employee can cope."

What can be done about stress

Work-related stress can occur when pressure exceeds a person’s capacity to cope.

There is no wrong time to address stress at work, but prevention is better than cure, so putting measures in place early – before teams or individuals begin experiencing problems – is the best thing that can be done.

What we can do about stress at work:

  1. Recognise the signs of stress
  2. Understand the areas of risk relating to the workplace
  3. Take steps to prevent, reduce or manage stress

Signs of stress

It’s important to be able to recognise signs of stress if it does occur, whether that’s an observation of your own experience or something you notice in the behaviour of a colleague.

Stress can affect you both emotionally and physically. It can affect the way you behave too. Each person feels the effects of stress differently. Find out more about the signs of stress by mental health charity, Mind.

Areas of risk

In the workplace, there are six main risk factors which, if not well managed, increase the likelihood of work-related stress occurring. High levels of work-related stress are associated with absences, poor health, lower productivity, and accidents, so it makes sense to use a preventative approach to tackle it.

We highlight these risk factors in our guidance and related resources:

  • Demands: Issues such as workload, work patterns and the work environment
  • Change: How large or small organisational change is managed and communicated
  • Relationships: Such as promoting positive working to avoid conflict
  • Support: Including encouragement, sponsorship and resources
  • Control: How much say teams have over the way they do their work
  • Role: How people understand where their role fits in the organisation

Preventing, reducing and managing stress

There are many ways that individuals can reduce their stress, but it’s not just down to them. To tackle workplace stress, managers at the University complete risk assessments and create action plans to put preventative measures in place.

Risk assessments

Risk assessments are used for all kinds of activities, including preventing work-related stress. When completing a risk assessment relating to work-related stress, managers will usually:

  • Prepare by gathering information about key stressors and considering each of the six areas of risk defined by the HSE.
  • Using the risk assessment template, identify specific hazards.
  • Next to hazards, outline the control measures that are already in place. Some of these measures will be University-wide, others may have been developed on a local or individual basis.

Action plans

Part of the risk assessment process, action plans are used by managers to plan new measures that should be implemented. When preparing action plans to reduce stress at work, managers will usually:

  • Work closely with individuals and teams to decide what changes or extra control measures are needed.
  • Prioritise areas with a higher level of risk and, therefore, the greatest potential impact.

Line managers review risk assessments and action plans regularly, and in some cases extra controls or actions may be needed in response to the changes and challenges related to COVID-19.

How individuals can deal with stress

As part of its Every Mind Matters campaign, the NHS makes these recommendations for dealing with stress and burnout:

  1. Split up big tasks into manageable and achievable chunks.
  2. Allow yourself some positivity and acknowledge good things in your life that you are thankful for.
  3. Challenge unhelpful thoughts because the way we think affects the way we feel.
  4. Be more active to burn off nervous energy and make stress less intense.
  5. Talk to someone like trusted friends, family and colleagues, or call a helpline.
  6. Plan ahead for upcoming stressful days or events so you feel prepared.

Further resources

Safety and Health Services resources:

HR resources:

  • Mental Health Awareness Week is running from 10 May to 16 May 2021
  • Visit the HR wellbeing pages for lots of resources relating to wellbeing

External resources:

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