How to identify stress

It is vital for employers to identify stress in the workplace and one of the simplest ways to pinpoint problems is to audit employees

Identifying stress, and the potential for it to occur, is key to keeping employees healthy and productive and safeguarding an organisation from stress-related tribunals.

Running a stress audit can help pinpoint issues. Under the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999, staff are required to carry out an assessment of the risks to the health and safety of employees arising from workplace activities.

Professor Mike O’Donnell, chief medical officer at Unum, says one of the simplest ways to audit stress is to ask employees. He explains: “At Unum, we run an annual employee questionnaire asking employees whether they enjoy their work. This helps us identify any potential problems but also creates an open culture so employees feel they can approach us for support if they are stressed.”

Instead of creating a questionnaire to check employees’ stress levels, it is possible to buy a ready-made solution. Jacky Gerald, training product manager at Employee Advisory Resource, says: “Our online stress and wellbeing audit doesn’t take long to complete but provides staff with useful [health guidelines]. Each result is confidential but bosses get an overview too.”

The Health and Safety Executive’s management standards, which are designed to help organisations tackle work-related stress also provide guidance on spotting the signs of stress (see box opposite).

Monitoring sickness absence can also help employers identify any problems. Justin Crossland, head of healthcare and risk at Towers Perrin, says: “Absence notification systems can make a significant difference at a small cost.”

He says these systems cost between £7 and £70 a year per employee and can help determine at an early stage whether an employee would benefit from further assistance. Additionally the management information can, through consistent reporting, help identify trends, such as high absence in a department, which could warrant further investigation.

Other management information can also help in identifying stress hot spots, such as work and exit interviews and reports from occupational health and an employee assistance programme.

Stress awareness and training are also important. Gill Weston, a psychobiologist and consultancy services manager at Bupa, says: “Employees have a duty of care to look after themselves and you can make this easier for them by training them to be aware of the symptoms of stress.”

This would also help in removing the stigma that can be attached to stress so employees feel able to support each other and ask for help early on. Line managers are in a good position to know of any personal problems employees are experiencing and, with the right training, to spot the signs of stress. This is particularly important as non-work related stress is one of the main causes of long-term absence.

Once employees suffering from stress have been identified, then a solution needs to be found to reduce the pressure that they are under. Weston says: “I’d recommend involving employees with devising solutions to work-related problems that can cause stress. For example, if a stress audit highlights workload issues then ask employees if they have any suggestions for changing this.”


What to look for

Making managers and employees aware of the changes in behaviour that can be caused by stress can help them spot potential problems. Here are some of the early warning signs:

• Reduction in the quality or quantity of work

• Poor timekeeping

• Changes in working hours, for instance staying late, working through lunch or taking more breaks

• An increase in smoking – or taking up the habit

• Indecisiveness

• Tiredness

• Increased sickness absence or more illnesses such as headaches, colds and nausea

• Irritability levels

• Tearfulness

• Loss of sense of humour

• Poor co-worker relationships


Health and Safety Executive management standards

The HSE has put together a series of management standards for work-related stress to help simplify stress risk assessments. These are designed to provide a benchmark that will enable an organisation to monitor stress levels and create a more open culture in which employers and employees can tackle stress together.

The standards cover the main causes of stress in the workplace and relate to: 

• Demands – workloads, work patterns and work environment

• Control – how much say the person has in the way they do their work

• Support – encouragement, sponsorship and resources provided by the organisation, management and colleagues

• Relationships – promoting positive working

• Role – ensuring employees understand their role within the organisation

• Change – how organisational change is managed and communicated

The HSE has also developed a website to help put the management standards into practice. For more information, visit the HSE at “>”>

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