Work-related stress

What is stress?

HSE define stress as the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressure or other types of demands placed on them.  Work-related stress is not just confined to particular sectors but is widespread across all types of workplace - and is on the increase. 

According to the TUC website, surveys conducted by trade unions and others have confirmed that spending cuts in the public sector and job insecurity throughout the economy after the banking crisis are causing increasing levels of stress.

A massive intensification of work, begun before the financial crisis, has been accelerated during austerity: see Hazards magazine's article "The new normal" which draws on a recent report- "Performance Management and the new workplace tyrrany".  

The public sector is being particularly badly hit in a period of austerity.

Symptoms of stress

Stress can be a significant cause of ill-health, both physical and mental.  These are a few of the early symptoms:

  • Anxiety
  • Mood swings
  • Increased emotional reactions
  • Poor memory
  • Loss of concentration
  • Disturbed sleep
  • Changed eating habits
  • Loss of confidence

Longer-term changes to health can include:

  • High blood pressure
  • Heart disease
  • Muscle tension
  • Dysfunction of the gut
  • Depression
  • Susceptibility to disease

Preventing work-related stress

Causes of stress should be treated in the same way as any other workplace hazard.  Recognising this and in response to growing concerns about work-related stress, HSE has developed a set of standards to help employers conduct effective risk assessments for work-related stress:  Management Standards for Work-Related Stress

These standards were produced in consultation with trade unions and employers.  The standards focus on six areas of work design (demands, control, relationships, support, role and change) that, if not properly managed, are associated with poor health and well-being.

The Management Standards operate in conjunction with the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations (1999).

Spotlight on stress - take confronting work-stress a step further

However, in the current climate of cuts and attacks on the workforce as well as on the community as a whole, unions and activists need a radical re-think of the issue of work-stress, to take it a step further.

Work-stress and austerity

Work-related Stress tops the list of concerns from safety reps, in the TUC's 11th biennial survey.  Two-thirds of employed people say that the amount of work they are expected to do has grown over the past few years, according to a YouGov poll for the TUC.

Work-stress is now the most serious problem, particularly in the public sector, where cuts have slashed the workforce and put terrific strain on the residual workforce. Zero hours contracts are amongst the growing insecure and less than full-time contracts, However, increasing work-stress remains a somewhat "invisible" problem, with activists and politicians largely seeing it as a somewhat "specialist" area, to be left to others to sort out.  This means that:

  • it's never been more important for safety reps to work together with other reps in confronting issues and taking work-stress and attacks on the workforce seriously
  • a wider range of tools is needed than just the HSE's risk assessment approach
  • opportunities need to be found to publicise the extent of the problem and pressure put on government to make appropriate changes e.g. specific laws on work-stress, and use enforcement where possible
  • the issue of work-stress must be placed in the wider context of a general attack on workplace safety standards and rights at work, countering myths and defending the right to safe jobs

Resources and links

See also our news articles NHS Stress absences more than double and Bullying claims in Worcs NHS hospitals.

The UK national Work Stress Network is part of the Hazards Campaign, website . It has a number of useful resources e.g. Model Audit Form which can be used for a quick assessment from the workforce to orient plans for change. 

The Work Positive Stress Risk Assessment Questionnaire for NHS Scotland, which has been successfully used to extend official guidance, and a risk assessment for individuals and small teams.

HSE publication: Management Standards for Work-Related Stress

HSE publication: Managing the causes of work-related stress – a step-by-step approach using the Management Standards

TUC Hazards at Work book is available online and has chapters on:

TUC publication: Hazards at work: Organising for safe and healthy workplaces. Basic facts about stress.

UCU publication: The growing epidemic: work-related stress in post-16 education. (2011)