Management guidance - work-related stress

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The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) regards work-related stress as a major employment risk. As well as the distress caused to individuals, stress-related employee absence is estimated to cost the UK economy in the region of £3.8 billion per year.

Early reports and guidance on work-related stress concentrated on the legal health and safety duty to assess risk and to take measures to control the risk. More recently there has been a greater emphasis on effective management skills as the key to managing and preventing work-related stress. The HSE's current guidance emphasises that effective stress management does not have to be a separate activity, but should be part of everyday management and behaviour in the workplace.

"Many organisations are already doing more than they realise to tackle stress simply by managing their staff well. What is important is that the organisation and its employees and their representatives recognise where there is room for improvement and take action by working together" (Real Solutions, Real People: a managers' guide to tackling work-related stress. HSE, 2003).

The HSE's guidance on the prevention and management of stress is based on a set of 'management standards'. These define the characteristics of organisations where stress is being managed effectively. The University, through the Safety Office, Occupational Health Service, People and Organisational Development, and University HR, has developed this guidance based on the HSE management standards approach. In addition, the Occupational Health Service website provides resources, with the aim of assisting staff to prevent and pro-actively manage stressors.

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The HSE draws a clear distinction between pressure, which can be a motivating factor, and stress, which can occur when pressure becomes excessive. The University adopts the HSE's definition of stress: "Stress is the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them".

Stress is a state, not an illness, and where stress lasts for only a short time there is usually no lasting effect. However, if the stress is sustained over a long period it can have a significant impact on physical and mental health, work performance and morale. The effects of stress in the workplace include increased absence, reduced morale, poor employee relations, a decline in work performance and efficiency, and higher staff turnover. Reducing and preventing work-related stress therefore brings clear benefits to employers as well as to staff.

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Employees have a duty to look after their own health and safety at work, and to draw problems to the attention of their managers, at an early stage. However, managers should also be alert for signs of stress amongst their staff.

The key indicator of stress may be a change from an employee's normal behaviour and/or appearance in the workplace. Identifying the signs of stress at an early stage increases the possibility that action can be taken to deal with the symptoms and the underlying causes, thus minimising the risk to the individual's health and well-being and the effects on the department.

A list of the possible signs and indicators of stress is available, and departments are encouraged to raise awareness and encourage open discussion about the issues of stress. Staff and managers are encouraged to make use of the information and resources available about stress on the Occupational Health Service website.

It is sometimes necessary for managers to invoke disciplinary procedures to address poor performance or conduct, and to protect other staff from the adverse effects of such under-performance (for example through carrying an additional workload to compensate for colleagues). It is recognised that the prospect of disciplinary proceedings or the proceedings themselves may be stressful for the staff involved. This should not of itself prevent managers from pursuing legitimate management action: indeed lengthy delays in the disciplinary process may aggravate stress.

Line managers should, however, seek advice if necessary from University HR and/or the Occupational Health Services as to how to support the member of staff concerned while the disciplinary process is in progress to mitigate the effects of any stress, through interventions such as professional counselling. Similar advice may be necessary in the context of the grievance procedure.

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Employers have a general "duty of care" towards their employees, involving a responsibility not to cause foreseeable harm or injury. This duty of care may be breached by action (doing something actively harmful) or negligence (failing to act to prevent harm or injury). The University may find itself in breach of this duty if it fails to take steps to prevent or minimise foreseeable work-related stress amongst its staff, or if it permits a stressful work situation to continue without taking action.

There are a number of areas of employment and health and safety legislation which cover the issue of work-related stress and its effects.

  • Where negligence leads to work place injury (including psychiatric injury) there maybe claims through employers' liability insurance channels.
  • Health and safety legislation makes no distinction between hazards which may lead to physical injury, and hazards which may lead to stress-related illness in terms of employers' responsibilities to their staff. Work-related stress remains a priority hazard area for the HSE.

There are two major pieces of relevant Health and Safety legislation:

  • the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 states that "it shall be the duty of every employer to ensure, as far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work of all his (sic) employees";
  • the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 require the employer to make a "suitable and sufficient assessment" of "the risks to the health and safety of his (sic) employees to which they are exposed whilst they are at work". The risk assessment should identify the hazard - who might be harmed by it and how, evaluate the risk and act, record the findings, and monitor and review .

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The HSE guidance on work-related stress emphasises that employees also have a duty to look after their own health and safety at work, and to draw problems to the attention of their managers, at an early stage. Employees should be encouraged to improve their knowledge of stress as a health and safety issue, and Occupational Health Service website provides useful information and resources about stress. Where they feel they have a problem, employees should therefore be encouraged to take ownership of the issue by seeking information, and making use of training and support offered by the organisation at an early stage.

See also:

The HSE has also drawn attention to the important and positive role that staff representatives can play in the development, implementation, monitoring and review of health and safety at work and Oxford University endorses this view.

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Risk assessment

The University Occupational Health Service undertook an institutional-level risk assessment exercise to identify the extent and causes of reported workplace stress. This highlighted the importance of good general management practice, monitoring workloads, and tackling inappropriate workplace behaviour (such as aggression and bullying). These are being addressed through ongoing staff training initiatives (such as training for line managers) and through such things as the harassment advisory services, and the information and resources available on the Occupational Health Service website.

Departmental administrators should undertake risk assessments within their own departments. These should include reviewing sickness absence records, trends in staff turnover, complaints of harassment or bullying, and issues emerging from personal development reviews or departmental committees.

Particular attention should be paid to the management of change.

The HSE Management Standards

The HSE has identified six key 'Management Standards' that represent a set of conditions that reflect high levels of health, wellbeing and organisational performance. These management standards provide a practical framework, which organisations can use to minimise the impact of work-related stress.

See: HSE Management standards (PDF)

checklist is provided, based on the HSE management standards, which contains guidance for managers and staff on the practical steps they can take to identify and address potential sources of workplace stress. 

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The key indicators of stress may be a change in a staff member's normal behaviour and/or appearance. 

Staff may be subject to pressures both inside and outside the workplace, and it is a priority where stress is suspected to identify the source of the employee's stress, and establish whether work-related issues are involved. In some cases it may be a combination of work and personal pressures which results in stress.

Stress caused by personal issues

Where an employee is facing problems in their personal life these problems may affect the employee's ability to work effectively. If work performance is affected this will need to be addressed with the employee.

In such cases, whilst of course employees are not obliged to disclose details of personal problems with their managers, it may be helpful to discuss sensitively what help can be made available (such as counselling services, compassionate leave, temporary adjustments to duties, etc) to enable the employee to return to effective working. Where appropriate, staff should be encouraged to make use of the information and resources available about stress from the Occupational Health Service website to help them to identify stress, and access practical information and skills to overcome the negative effects of stress.

Stress in the context of disciplinary or grievance proceedings

Where work-related stress occurs in the context of capability, disciplinary or grievance proceedings, the University's formal procedures will not necessarily be delayed. Specific advice as to how to manage stress while progressing the other procedures in such circumstances should be ought from University HR in the first instance.

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Early intervention and action will reduce the likelihood of the individual becoming ill and needing to take sick leave, and will increase the likelihood of a successful outcome for both the individual and the department.

If a member of staff is thought to be suffering from stress or at risk of stress, the line manager should arrange to meet the person to discuss the issues on a confidential basis with a view to identifying and addressing the causes of workplace stress and ensure that the member of staff has been advised that they may be accompanied by a colleague or staff representative, if they so wish.

The checklist based on the HSE management standards will provide a framework for such meetings.

At the meeting that manager should:

  • provide a supportive environment in which the staff member feels able to discuss problems and worries;
  • identify in discussion with the staff member the source(s) of stress;
  • agree a plan of action both to relieve stress points in the short term (eg by providing additional support/training, or reassigning a particular piece of work), and to address the underlying causes in the longer term;
  • where is it not possible to remove the stressors, assist the staff member to develop more effective coping strategies (eg through training, or the resources available from the Occupational Health Service website, or the counselling services)
  • assess the impact of any special arrangements on other staff to ensure that they are not themselves subjected to undue stress as a consequence;
  • monitor and review the situation regularly with the individual, and adjust the action plan as required;
  • if the individual in question is an academic holding a joint appointment with a college, discuss with the individual whether they would wish to involve the college.

Sources of help and advice

Occupational Health Service information and resources: All staff may access the information about stress and the resources available on the Occupational Health Service website, to empower staff to recognise and manage stressful situations more effectively.

Training: People and organisational development (POD) run seminars specifically focussing on stress management skills, as well as seminars on assertiveness and on time management. It also runs job-related skills training.

Bullying/Harassment: The Diversity and Equal Opportunities website contains advice on harassment, including the University's code of practice on harassment, how to resolve issues informally and formally, and information about the support offered by harassment advisers and how to contact them.

Counselling: Individuals may refer themselves, or the department (with the individual's consent) may make a management referral in the usual way. Staff can also access either face to face, online or telephone counselling via an Employee Assistance Programme, Health Assured.

Self-help resources: University Staff are also eligible to register with Togetherall (previously known as Big White Wall), which is a 24/7 online, anonymous community where members can support each other over mental health concerns, with trained professionals on hand to provide additional support as required.  

Where the source of stress is a family related issue, staff can also register for a free telephone advice service "Speak to an Expert " provided by the Work+Family Space (My  Family Care)  

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The general guidance on managing employee absence is relevant to cases of stress-related absence, although there are some additional points to be borne in mind.

  • Advice from the Occupational Health Service should be sought at the earliest opportunity in all cases of work-related illness by means of a management referral.

  • Where the individual is an academic with a joint appointment, ensure that the college is involved at all stages (contact the Data Protection Section for advice about sharing sensitive personal data with colleges).

  • The impact of the absence on other staff who are covering for the absentee should be monitored to ensure that they are supported appropriately and not themselves subject to undue stress.

  • Contact from colleagues to keep in touch during sick leave may not necessarily be welcome where work-related stress is the cause of the absence and the individual's wishes in this regard should be respected as far as practicable. However, the employee will need to be in contact with the manager, or another appropriate person, while on sick leave and this should be clearly explained to them as early on in the absence as possible, to avoid misunderstanding.

  • Consideration should be given to scheduling essential meetings with managers during the absence at a neutral location; this may be less stressful for the employee than having to attend the workplace before they feel ready to do so. The staff member should also be advised that they may be accompanied at such a meeting by a colleague or staff representative, if they so wish.

  • Before the individual returns to work it is essential that the underlying causes of the original stress are addressed, or if this is not possible, that appropriate support is put in place (with the employee's agreement) to enable the employee to cope with the situation. The Occupational Health Service should be consulted by means of a management referral for advice on appropriate adjustments to facilitate a return to work.

  • A structured phased return to normal hours and/or duties may be helpful after a stress-related absence. The Occupational Health Service will be able to advise, and a return-to-work plan, including arrangements for support, monitoring and review, should be agreed in advance with the employee.

  • Once the employee has returned to work, it is essential to monitor the situation carefully to ensure that problems do not recur. Regular review meetings should be scheduled to discuss how the employee is coping and to revise the plan as necessary. Continued monitoring by the Occupational Health Service may be advised in some cases.

  • In some cases it may not be possible for the member of staff to return to their original role, even with adjustments. In this case other approaches need to be considered in consultation with the individual, the Occupational Health Service and the relevant HR Business Partner.

  • Where work-related stress occurs in the context of capability or disciplinary issues, the University's formal procedures will not necessarily be delayed, and the issue of stress may be dealt with in parallel to other procedures. Advice should be sought from University HR in all such cases.

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Where a manager identifies a cluster of cases of work-related stress, for example within a particular team, steps should be taken to try to identify whether there is a common cause of the stress and what might be done to address it.

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