· Features

How employers can manage stress in the workplace

By 2020, depression will rank second only to heart disease as the leading cause of disability world-wide, according to Harvard public health professors Christopher Murray and Alan Lopez.

So what warning signs should employers be alert to and what can they do to tackle stress?

It is widely assumed that people suffering with depression may turn to drugs and alcohol, but it is less well known that alcoholism and drug addiction can in themselves cause depression.

While addiction cannot amount to a disability, a physical or mental impairment caused by one, such as depression or liver disease can constitute a disability that employers are legally obliged to take into account.

So what is stress? The Health & Safety Executive (HSE) defines it as "the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them".

It has identified the following main causes of stress at work, of which all managers should be aware:


  1. The demands made on employees;
  2. The level of control workers have over how they carry out their duties;
  3. The support staff receive from their managers;
  4. The clarity of an employee's role in their organisation; and
  5. The nature of relationships at work.

Guidance for reducing workplace stress

Employers are still less comfortable dealing with someone with mental health problems than someone with a physical disability. This needs to change.

Firstly, line managers should be trained in people skills and how to manage common mental health problems.

Secondly, cultural attitudes to stress need to move into the modern age. Employees are often concerned about the stigma attached to mental health conditions.

Below are five tips for employers to follow to ensure a culture that guards against workplace stress:


  1. Employees should feel valued and involved in their organisation. Managers should have open lines of communication with staff.
  2. Make sure jobs are flexible and well designed. Managers should inform and consult employees on changes that are likely to affect them before they take place and encourage them to ask questions before, during and after workplace change so that they feel involved, buy into it and feel that their opinions are valued and respected.
  3. Tackle absence and help people back to work by using appropriate health services such as occupational health and return to work interviews;
  4. Employee assistance programmes, such as confidential telephone or in person counselling should be available.
  5. Managers must "walk the walk" not just "talk the talk", and should actively promote a healthy lifestyle themselves by having a good work/life balance, managing their working hours, using their full holiday entitlement and taking lunch breaks. 

Employers can identify the risk factors for stress identified by the HSE by conducting informal talks with staff, performance appraisals, focus groups, return to work interviews following sickness absence or by collecting and monitoring sickness absence data, performance data, turnover rates and questionnaires.

Losing valued staff as a result of stress is expensive not only in terms of absence time, but also potentially any disability discrimination claim they might bring if their employer has contributed to their condition.

It is important that businesses have a genuinely supportive culture and not just policies that are applied inconsistently by different managers.

This can be avoided if line managers are adequately trained to recognise the warning signs of stress and know how to communicate with employees about this. If workers are given the necessary support, it will help them to recover and return to work as soon as possible.

Michelle Chance is an employment and partnership lawyer at Kingsley Napley