Stress in the Workplace – Risk Insight

November 7, 2017
| United Kingdom

By Letitia Rowlin, Risk Partner, Health & Wellbeing

Workplace wellbeing has moved in to the mainstream. No longer just seen as a ‘nice to have’, increasingly it is making its way on to the boardroom agenda as a strategic priority with organisations realising the links with higher productivity and corporate resilience.

Thriving at Work – The Stevenson/Farmer review of mental health and employers published October 2017 highlights the clear link between lost productivity and poor mental health, with a clear recommendation that health & wellbeing be given increased transparency and accountability at board level. It also recommends that organisations nominate a health & wellbeing lead with clear reporting duties and responsibilities. Wellbeing is an umbrella term often used to describe a multitude of initiatives, but what does it actually mean?

Wellbeing has been described as “a positive state of mind and body, feeling safe and able to cope, with a sense of connection with people, communities and the wider environment.”1

Creating a healthy working environment with low levels of workplace stress contributes to creating a positive state of wellbeing for employees. However organisations can be reluctant to mention the ‘S’ word for fear of what may emerge. This often results in stress being disguised under the wellbeing banner, yet it is the greatest threat to achieving corporate resilience on a social level.

Risks & effects

Stress is defined by the Health & Safety Executive as ‘the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressure or other types of demands placed on them’2. Aside of the obvious risk to human health, failing to tackle workplace stress results in financial losses to your organisation from decreased productivity, increased sickness absence, increased staff turnover, additional costs of recruitment, training and sick pay and increased grievances & litigation.

“Poor mental health costs employers between £33 billion and £42 billion a year. This amounts to a cost per employee of between £1205 and £1560 per year. This cost is for all employees, not just those who are ill.3

Effective psychosocial risk management requires active involvement at organisational level using a combined approach of preventative and management strategies in order to sustain employee wellbeing in the long-term and maintain corporate resilience.

Identifying the problem

Organisations often start with a review of absence statistics and claims to identify whether workplace stress is an issue for them although this can be misleading and is unlikely to provide the true picture. Financial losses due to workplace stress are more often the result of presenteeism than absenteeism – where employees are turning up for work when not in full health and consequently not working at their optimum. Of the £33bn to £42bn cost of mental ill health referred to above, £17bn to £26bn relates to presenteeism. Add in the cost of £8bn lost in absenteeism and £8bn in staff turnover costs to see the full extent of the losses.

Culture and attitudes

There is still a stigma which surrounds stress and mental health in the workplace. This can lead to employees failing to report it for fear of negative repercussions, or perhaps more reporting of short term absences citing physical reasons, with employees feeling this will be more socially acceptable than reporting a mental health issue. Whilst symptoms of stress can include physical symptoms, this illustrates the longstanding issue of lack of parity between mental health and physical health. There is no ‘health’ without both physical and mental health. Addressing workplace stress from the ground up requires considering the culture of your organisation, and particularly attitudes surrounding stress and mental health.

Causes of workplace stress

To prevent or reduce exposure requires an understanding of what causes stress in the workplace and there is often disparity between the employer and employee perception. Stress is subjective, therefore prevention relies on the gathering of data from employees to understand where the stress hotspots are in an organisation. The Health & Safety Executive supports using the Management Standards approach which gathers data in six key areas – Demands, Control, Support, Relationships, Role and Change.

Is it all down to the line manager?

According to the Labour Force Survey4 the main work factors cited as causing work related stress, depression or anxiety were workload pressures (including tight deadlines and too much responsibility) and a lack of managerial support. It is everyone’s responsibility to create an environment where everyone takes responsibility for the psychological wellbeing of themselves and of others in the way they interact with them. However, the role of the line manager is particularly important with the line manager often ‘gatekeeper’ to the presence or absence of work related stress. Part of stress management in the workplace is simply good line management, yet many fall in to the role of line manager as a natural career progression, but without sufficient training on the ‘people’ aspect of the role, and there lies a problem.

Claims for stress

There is potential for claims for workplace stress to arise both in the civil courts as negligence claims, and via the employment tribunal route depending on circumstances. For a claim for workplace stress to succeed in the civil courts against an employer’s liability policy, a claimant has to prove a recognised psychiatric injury. If the employer knew or ought to have known that, as a result of stress at work, there was a risk the employee would suffer harm of the kind the employee did in fact suffer, the employer risks being in breach of its duty of care if it fails to take steps which are reasonable in the circumstances to avoid that harm.

Any complaints of stress need to be taken seriously and managers not only educated in how to spot signs of stress in employees, but be confident to address the issue at an early stage supportively and respectfully. The growth of stress awareness training and the training of Mental Health First Aiders is gaining traction in the workplace.

The ‘PPE’ of workplace stress

Whilst training is undoubtedly beneficial, it should not be viewed as a panacea, but rather the PPE of workplace stress. In other words, PPE (‘Personal Protective Equipment’) should be available, but other avenues of reducing the risk must be considered. Looking at it from a different perspective, it is not acceptable to expect an employee to operate a machine with a sharp blade giving the employee only protective gloves. The law requires the risks of using the machine to be assessed and reduced to the lowest level reasonably practicable. Consideration would also have to be given to guarding the sharp blade on the machine to reduce the risk at source. Protective gloves would be the fall-back position or the additional safety precaution. So why do we think only PPE is acceptable for stress and mental health?


Whilst workplace stress is only one aspect of wellbeing, it is nonetheless a crucial one to address to create a healthy working environment which promotes positive wellbeing. Identification of the root causes of workplace stress and action plans to address issues detected coupled with training for line managers around stress/mental health and adding in the support of EAP and occupational health services provides the strongest line of defence for your organisation against workplace stress, poor mental health and the subsequent impact on business results. Not only that, but building preventative aspects in to your employee experience, considering other initiatives as part of an overall wellbeing strategy and keeping wellbeing continuously on the agenda will enable you to create a workplace where your employees and your organisation will thrive.


  1. HM Government Department of Health – New Horizons, A Shared Vision for Mental Health 2009
  2. HSE – What is stress?
  3. Thriving at Work. The Stevenson/Farmer review of mental health and employers 2017
  4. HSE – Work related Stress, Anxiety and Depression Statistics in Great Britain 2016