All You Need To Know About Work-Related Stress

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November 2004’s publication of the Health and Safety Executive’s new Management Standards for work-related stress has focused the minds of many organisations on this increasingly serious workplace hazard. But what are the differences between pressure and stress? What are the telltale signs and symptoms? What’s the current legal position? And what role should managers be playing in helping to combat work-related stress?
Pressure or stress?
Many people are confused about what stress is, and in particular the difference between pressure and stress:
• Pressure is the stimulation and challenge we need to achieve job satisfaction and self-esteem.
• Stress is a reaction to continued excessive pressure or responsibility when we feel inadequate and unable to cope.
Ever since prehistoric times, the ‘stress response’ has been a mechanism that our bodies have used to help us cope with danger. As soon as we’re aware that something is threatening us, our brain sends messages to our nervous system to either get ready to stand and fight, or run away. Unfortunately, whereas in Stone Age times we would usually have time to recover from the life or death encounters that triggered the response, in the modern world we’re confronted with a continuous stream of ‘stressors’ that our bodies perceive as threats, and react to accordingly.
Today, these could include financial pressures, fear of redundancy, overwork, deadline pressures or an important business presentation. The constant, ongoing pressure resulting from these stressors is different to the more immediate dangers that our stress response was designed to cope with. And it’s at the point at which our bodies cannot recover from these pressures that we can begin to experience stress.
The scale of the problem
According to the latest figures from the HSE:
• about half a million people in the UK experience work-related stress at a level they believe is making them ill
• up to 5 million people in the UK feel ‘very’ or ‘extremely’ stressed by their work
• work-related stress costs society about £3.7 billion every year (1995/6 prices)
Telltale signs and symptoms
Depending on the individual, stress can manifest itself in many different ways.
The table provides a summary some of the most common physical, psychological and behavioural reactions.
Typical Stress Reactions
Physical Psychological Behavioural
Palpitations, awareness of heart beating, chest pains Mood swings Susceptibility to accidents
Diarrhoea, constipation, flatulence Panic attacks Changes in eating habits
Indigestion Morbid thoughts Increased smoking
Loss of libido Low self-esteem Restlessness, hyperactivity, foot tapping
Muscle tension Irritability Over-dependence on drugs and/or alcohol
Menstrual problems Feeling of helplessness Changes in sleep patterns
Tiredness Impatience Out of character behaviour
Breathlessness Anxiety Voluntary withdrawal from supportive relationships
Sweating Crying Disregard for personal appearance
Tightness in the chest Cynicism Loss of confidence
Skin and scalp irritation, eczema and psoriasis Withdrawal into daydreams Sullen attitude
Increased susceptibility to allergies Intrusive thoughts or images Clenched fists
Frequent colds, flu or other infections Nightmares Obsessive mannerisms
Rapid weight gain or loss Suicidal feelings Increased absence from work
Backache, neck pain Paranoid thinking Aggressiveness
Migraines and tension headaches Guilt Poor time management
The current legal position
As well as acting as an unnecessary drain on the economy, workplace stress is also the subject of increasing government legislation:
• Section 2 of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act (1974) lays out the broad principles of an employer’s ‘duty of care’ to ensure, as far as reasonably possible, the health (including mental health), safety and welfare of all employees whilst at work, and to create safe and healthy working systems. This general duty of care includes pre-emptive action to prevent and control work-related stress.
• Many employers do not realise that since the publication of the Management of Health & Safety at Work Regulations (1999), all organisations with five or more employees have also had a legal duty to conduct regular risk assessments of workplace hazards, including psychosocial hazards such as stress. These assessments should then be used to identify and either avoid or reduce such hazards.
• On 3 November 2004, the HSE published its new Management Standards for work-related stress – designed to help ensure that organisations address key aspects of workplace stress (or ‘risk factors’) including demands, control, support, relationships, role and change.
• While the Standards themselves do not impose a legal duty on organisations, breach of the applicable regulations could lead to criminal prosecution, or claims for compensation through the civil courts.
So what can managers do?
The Management Standards are all about highlighting potential areas of stress, and encouraging employers to take action to reduce these – with the goal of matching the performance of the top 20% of organisations that are already doing this. If you think your organisation may be experiencing problems due to workplace stress, it will therefore need to take a proactive approach to tackling it:
• Many organisations face deadline pressures or sudden changes in work demands, and employees need the necessary training and experience to meet the ever-increasing demands made on them. Examples include training in resilience, time management, communication skills, and – for managers in particular – stress awareness enabling them to recognise the early warning signs of stress in themselves and others.
• Where employees have been forced to take time away from work as a result of stress, their rehabilitation back to work needs to be carefully managed.
• For those employees who require specialist support, Employee Assistance Programmes and counselling services are a vital component in employee wellbeing.
• Training in communication (and particularly active listening) skills is essential to help ensure that managers are aware of their team members’ problems and in a position to offer early interventions to resolve these.
Ultimately, reducing workplace stress is largely a matter of common sense and good management practice, and simply requires employers and employees to work together for the common good. Both share a joint responsibility for reducing stress – which, when this is successful, can help employees to enjoy their work more, and businesses to thrive as a result.
About The Author
Carole Spiers combines three roles of broadcaster, journalist and corporate manager in the challenging field of stress management and employee wellbeing.
With 20 years as a top industry guru on stress management and wellbeing, Carole’s energy and dynamism extends to providing professional comment to media including television (BBC, ITV, Sky, NBC, CNN), print (Sunday Times, Daily Telegraph, trade and professional journals) and countless radio interviews.
A successful entrepreneur herself, Carole is the founder and MD of the Carole Spiers Group – a dynamic, niche consultancy, and the UK’s No. 1 provider of Stress Management and Employee Wellbeing from the shop floor to the Boardroom
A former Chairperson of the International Stress Management AssociationUK, Carole was instrumental in establishing National Stress Awareness Day™. Carole acts as an Expert Witness on Stress Risk Assessment before the Courts, and is the author of Tolley’s ‘Managing Stress in the Workplace’.
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