A stress risk assessment could transform the workplace

Stress is the scourge of the modern workplace, but if coronavirus has taught us anything it’s that necessity is still the mother of invention.

Fear is a great inhibitor, causing paralysis at the very moment clear thinking and decisive action is required. Fear of tackling psychological injuries caused by the workplace through a lack of knowledge, or even acknowledgement, is widespread across the developed world. It impacts individuals, groups of individuals and millions of people, all of whom make up the life blood of any economy. 

It is for this reason that despite domestic organisations recognising that work-related stress is the modern scourge costing billions in sickness absences (an estimated £45 billion a year in lost productivity in the UK alone) it is still the nettle that seems to be too hard to grasp.

Figures show a continual rise in work-related stress since 2001 and that’s despite the issue becoming increasingly recognised, discussed and outed as a key problem to tackle.  

The latest research points to work-related stress, anxiety and depression as the number-one cause of work-related absence across the UK, but if the pandemic has shown us anything it’s human beings’ ability to adapt at pace to resolve a threat.

The right level of urgency, focused in the right way, provides resolution for any problem. If we can develop vaccines in record time and roll out a never-before-seen programme to millions, then surely, we can address skyrocketing work-related psychological injuries.

Of course, we can, but it takes real will and education which must be led from the top as with any effective and lasting attempt at change culture and therein lies one of the most common barriers.

In order to meet a challenge, we can tackle it with a three-step approach: evaluate the causes of work-related stress; collaborate on an action plan to reasonably mitigate the risks; and empower employees, managers and leadership to take ownership of implementing their parts of the plan to prevent work-related stress.

Too often work-related stress is caused by a mix of excessive pressure and not enough support or resources to manage demands on employees. The old ‘more for less’ culture to drive higher productivity and profits, can have the opposite effect and lead to a drop in productivity as employees suffer from psychological injuries and burnout.

Ultimately this can result in sickness absence, which then accelerates the negative trend as more work becomes passed around among fewer workers having the opposite effect of what was originally intended.

With COVID-19 this negative cycle has often been accelerated as furloughed staff absence is carried among those workers left behind. Other sectors such as healthcare have had different issues around wellbeing, dealing with service user bereavement, isolation and trauma on an industrial scale.

Yet if we were already competent in taking a stress risk assessment approach to managing major change, I believe a lot of work-related stress caused during the pandemic could have been avoided or minimised. This strategy isn’t new and has been recommended by the Health and Safety Executive since they made prevention of work-related stress a legal requirement back in 1992.

It takes a strong leader to break the cycle. This is where a simple model providing clear direction and realistic goals achieved through effective processes coming from the top and filtering down can make all the difference.

An organisation going through this kind of change can then cope with the unexpected. I have plenty of examples of firms that have thrived during the pandemic because their approach to wellbeing and stress in the workplace had already begun to bite long before COVID-19.

We continue to see organisations not really tackling the underlying issues around work-related stress but there are more and more who are bucking the trend and given the right tools and education I’m hopeful the tide will turn.

By offering organisations and the individuals within them access to regular evaluation, encouraging collaboration and ensuring everyone, from top to bottom takes ownership the negative impacts of work-related stress can be mitigated.


Emily Pearson is director of Our Minds Work