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About Stress In The Workplace

A guide from Spiral Wellbeing.

Definition of stress

HSE's formal definition of work related stress is:

"The adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them at work."

Stress is not an illness – it is a state.

However, if stress becomes too excessive and prolonged, mental and physical illness may develop.

Work is generally good for people if it is well designed, but it can also be a great source of pressure. There is a difference between pressure and stress. Pressure can be positive and a motivating factor, and is often essential in a job. It can help us achieve our goals and perform better. Stress occurs when this pressure becomes excessive. Stress is a natural reaction to too much pressure.

Balancing demands and pressures with skills and knowledge

A person experiences stress when they perceive that the demands of their work are greater than their ability to cope. Coping means balancing the demands and pressures placed on you (i.e. the job requirements) with your skills and knowledge (i.e. your capabilities). For example, if you give a member of your team a tight deadline on a project they feel they have neither the skills nor ability to do well, they may begin to feel undue pressure which could result in work related stress.

Stress can also result from having too few demands, as people will become bored, feel undervalued and lack recognition. If they feel they have little or no say over the work they do or how they do it, this may cause them stress.

Factors in stress

Stress affects people in different ways and what one person finds stressful can be normal to another. With each new situation a person will decide what the challenge is and whether they have the resources to cope. If they decide they don't have the resources, they will begin to feel stressed. How they appraise the situation will depend on various factors, including:

  • their background and culture;
  • their skills and experience;
  • their personality;
  • their personal circumstances;
  • their individual characteristics;
  • their health status;
  • their ethnicity, gender, age or disability; and
  • other demands both in and outside work.
  • As a manager you have a duty to ensure that work does not make your team ill. Understanding how to spot the signs of stress in your team, and then know what to do to reduce stress, will help you achieve this.

    Signs of stress in individuals

    If you are suffering from some of the following symptoms it may indicate that you are feeling the effects of stress. If you find that work or aspects of your work bring on or make these symptoms worse, speak to your line manager, trade union representative or your HR department. It may be that some action taken at an early stage will ease the stress and reduce or stop the symptoms.

    Emotional symptoms

  • Negative or depressive feeling
  • Disappointment with yourself
  • Increased emotional reactions – more tearful or sensitive or aggressive
  • Loneliness, withdrawn
  • Loss of motivation commitment and confidence
  • Mood swings (not behavioural)
  • Mental

  • Confusion, indecision
  • Can’t concentrate
  • Poor memory
  • Changes from your normal behaviour

  • Changes in eating habits
  • Increased smoking, drinking or drug taking ‘to cope’
  • Mood swings effecting your behaviour
  • Changes in sleep patterns
  • Twitchy, nervous behaviour
  • Changes in attendance such as arriving later or taking more time off.
  • Please note these are indicators of behaviour of those experiencing stress. They may also be indicative of other conditions. If you are concerned about yourself please seek advice from your GP. If you are concerned about a colleague try to convince them to see their GP.

    Signs of stress in a group

  • Signs of stress in a group
  • Disputes and disaffection within the group
  • Increase in staff turnover
  • Increase in complaints and grievances
  • Increased sickness absence
  • Increased reports of stress
  • Difficulty in attracting new staff
  • Poor performance
  • Customer dissatisfaction or complaints
  • It is not up to you or your managers to diagnose stress. If you or they are very worried about a person, recommend they see their GP. It is up to you and your managers to recognise that behaviours have changed, be aware that something is wrong and take prompt action. Take care not to over react to small changes in behaviour. You and your managers need to act when these behavioural changes continue. Use these symptoms (both individual and group) as clues.

    HSE has identified six factors that can lead to work related stress if they are not managed properly.

    It is important to understand each of the six factors and how they are related to each other, as this can influence the amount of stress an individual experiences.

    Management Standards


    Employees indicate that they are able to cope with the demands of their jobs.


    Employees indicate that they are able to have a say about the way they do their work.


    Employees indicate that they receive adequate information and support from their colleagues and superiors.


    Employees indicate that they are not subjected to unacceptable behaviours, e.g. bullying at work.


    Employees indicate that they understand their role and responsibilities.


    Employees indicate that the organisation engages them frequently when undergoing an organisational change.


    Systems are in place locally to respond to any individual concerns.

    Key information about the six factors:

  • A person can reduce the impact of high demands if they have high control over their work.
  • The impact of high demands and low control can be reduced by having high levels of support, either from colleagues or from you as a manager.
  • Relationships can be one of the biggest sources of stress, especially problems like bullying and harassment.
  • Problems with role are probably the easier problems to solve.
  • Change does not have to be at an organisational level to have an impact on individuals or teams, for example, changes in team members, line managers or the type of work or technology used by the team can be just as stressful.

    Understanding that these six factors can cause stress for employees can help managers and employees to answer the questions:

  • Does my organisation or team have a problem with stress?
  • If 'yes', what do I need to do or change to reduce stress in my team?
  • If 'no' what do I need to do to prevent stress being a problem in the future?

    We have established good practice guidance for each of these factors. We hope that this helps everyone take a proactive approach to preventing and managing stress in your workplace.

  • Causes of stress outside work

    A person can experience excessive pressure and demands outside work just as much as they can at work. Stress tends to build up over time because of a combination of factors that may not all be work related. Conflicting demands of work and home can cause excessive stress.

    Problems outside work can affect a person's ability to perform effectively at work. Stressors at home can affect those at work and vice versa. For example, working long hours, or away from home, taking work home and having higher responsibility can all have a negative effect on a person’s home life – something which is supposed to be a 'buffer' against the stressful events of work. In the same way, domestic problems such as childcare, financial or relationship problems can negatively affect a person’s work. The person loses out – as do their family and their employer. It becomes a vicious circle.

    It is difficult to control outside stressors, but you need to take a holistic approach to employee well-being. To manage work related stress effectively, you need to recognise the importance and interaction of work and home problems.

    Many things in people's lives outside work can cause them stress, for example:


  • Death (of a loved one)
  • Divorce or separation from a partner
  • Marriage
  • Pregnancy
  • Holidays
  • Changes in health of a family member or close friend
  • Trouble with in-laws
  • Family arguments
  • Children leaving home
  • Childcare
  • Remarriage of a family member
  • Caring for other dependents, such as elderly relatives
  • Family reunion
  • Relationship breakdown or having a long-distance relationship

    Personal or social issues

  • Change in financial state, or debt or money worries
  • Changes in personal habits such as giving up smoking, going on a diet.
  • Problems with weight
  • Experiencing prejudice or discrimination
  • Lack of friends or support
  • Personal injury or illness

    Daily hassles

  • Traffic jams
  • Public transport
  • Time pressures
  • Car troubles


  • Moving house, including taking out a mortgage
  • Difficulties with neighbours
  • Living with someone with an alcohol, drug problem or other addiction.
  • (If studying) a deadline for coursework, exam results or trying to balance work and study
  • Unemployment
  • Poor living environment
  • Do I have to do anything about stress outside work?

    You don't have to, but it's good if you do. If you think about people's personal lives and outside stressors, you will be able to anticipate stressful times.

    Your employee is not obliged to tell you their personal problems, but there are some practical things you could do to support them:

  • Be sympathetic and proactive. Arrange a confidential meeting with the person, allowing them the opportunity to discuss any problems they wish and allowing you time to voice your own concerns. It may help to clarify whether the person’s problems are work related or personal.
  • Be flexible. Consider offering the person more flexible working hours, or even offer them some paid time off to deal with their problems.
  • Offer outside support. If appropriate, you could suggest they visit their doctor and allow them time off to do so. You could also suggest support groups.
  • Outline the support and services your organisation offers. For example, your organisation may have a work–life balance initiative in place. These are benefits, policies, or programmes that help balance out job demands and a healthy life outside work. They can include:

  • childcare services;
  • flexible working arrangements;
  • family leave policies;
  • employee assistance programmes; or
  • fitness programmes.
  • Programmes of this kind can work effectively to

  • retain staff;
  • improve morale;
  • reduce sickness absence and stress; and
  • increase productivity and commitment.
  • Certain information on this page has been sourced from the HSE website.


    © 2024 Jon Kestell, Spiral Wellbeing, trading address 115 Marldon Road, Paignton TQ3 3NN. Providing staff training, wellbeing training, stress management and stress prevention courses throughout the UK, United Kingdom, England, Scotland and Wales.