HR Clinic: Work Related Stress Management

Posted in : HR Updates on 25 October 2010
Emer Hinphey
Think People Consulting
Issues covered:

More and more of our employees are being signed off with stress. Can you advise what our obligations are as an employer with regard to managing stress and what can be done to minimise it?

The stress management society is now considered one of the UK's leading authorities on stress management. Their definition acknowledges that work-related stress is the result of when the individual and the environment combine to produce the outcome of stress. Occupational stress is, therefore, a very individual reaction to the work environment. Whilst this kind of stress is widely recognised as a ‘state of being’ rather than ill health, prolonged periods of stress may in some cases lead to associated ill health.

‘Work stress arises when a person feels his ability to cope with demands is being taxed or exceeded, and his well-being will be threatened as a result.’

Considerations in Law

We are seeing a greater number of high profile tribunal cases, where employers have paid substantial damages due to a failure to take reasonable steps to protect their employees from ‘foreseeable’ stress. There are various avenues through which employees may make claims against the employer for causing or failing to manage work-related stress, including constructive dismissal cases; cases related to protection from harassment; and some disability discrimination cases where stress has led to an ill-health disability.

HSE Regulation

The Government has developed public policy with regard to occupational stress management and risk assessment within the Health and Safety at Work (NI) Order 1978 and related Regulations. The Health and Safety Executive for Northern Ireland (HSENI) has also set out specific standards, which should be complied with. Failure to do so may expose the organisation to improvement notices by HSENI inspectors. Risk must be identified and measures implemented to minimise the risk. The guidelines produced by the HSENI on stress management are not legally enforceable but the increasing awareness and training on the standards of HSENI inspectors increase the likelihood of enforcement action in the future.

The HSENI has identified six ‘triggers’ to stress which should be considered as a minimum during regular risk assessment, these are;

  • Demands - including workload, work patterns and work environment
  • Control - how much say one has in the way work is done
  • Support - encouragement, sponsorship and resources
  • Relationships - how conflict and unacceptable behaviour is dealt with
  • Role - the level of understanding and or role conflict
  • Change - how well change is managed and communicated

The management standards risk assessment process identified by the HSENI for work-related stress, need not be cumbersome and may be combined with other Health and Safety risk assessment processes.

What’s in it for us?

The investment in ensuring legal and regulatory compliance can be relatively small for employers, often involving a small addition to an established risk assessment process (making sure that identified risks have actions which are followed through), however, the financial and operational benefits can be significant. Stress-related absence has an estimated cost of around £4 billion a year in the UK according to the HSE in GB. Stress-related absences are also frequently long, averaging 21days. High levels of stress are associated with lower motivation and commitment and higher intentions among employees to leave the organisation. Most organisations can, therefore, build a significant business case based on potential reductions in absence and turnover, by refocusing on managing stress.

Top tips...

  1. Build a business case for managing stress in your organisation, including a target reduction in absence and turnover.
  2. Create a simple addition to your risk assessment process which allows for identification of key risk areas for your organisation with regard to stress.
  3. Secure senior management commitment to build in Stress Management Interventions as a result of risk assessment.
  4. Involve employees and managers via ‘forums’ or ‘employee voice’ to identify the most effective interventions to reducing stress for your organisation.
  5. Use information (sensitively and confidentially) from existing long term stress absentees to assist in identifying areas of risk.
  6. Do not shy away from managing stress-related absence within your existing policy for managing long term absence. Create regular dialogue, and via the individual’s consent, use medical advice, to create effective return to work strategies. Having taken all reasonable steps, if absence is prolonged and goes beyond what is sustainable for your organisation, an ill health termination may reasonably be considered.
  7. Bring together your existing policies on absence and risk management and create a ‘stress management’ statement or policy – then communicate it!! Ensure all employees are aware that the organisation places great importance on their health and wellbeing.

The Role of the Manager

The CIPD, in partnership with Investors in People and the HSE, has recently published the latest in a three-phase study, which has resulted in the development of a competency framework of management behaviours, focussed specifically at reducing stress at work (CIPD, 2010). The refined framework consists of four key competencies, which are supported by an indicator tool to guide assessment, these are;

  • Respectful and responsible: managing emotions and having integrity
  • Managing and communicating existing and future work
  • Reasoning/managing difficult situations
  • Managing the individual within the team

The good news for employers is that supporting line managers to develop these competencies can be done within the existing performance management framework used and need not be a separate piece.

Stress Management Interventions

Depending upon the data collected from employee forums and risk assessment, the organisation may select appropriate interventions which will tackle their risk, some examples include;


  • Line management training, which is focused on key competencies and the ability to recognise stress and take appropriate action
  • Wellness programmes, promoting work-life balance, fitness and health
  • Work related: Job design – improved autonomy, ability to manage work demands, greater variety, less scripted work, greater teamwork and self management


  • Employees Assistance Programmes (EAP)
  • Professional one to one counselling e.g. use of cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT)
  • Stress management workshops, dealing with conflict and pressure, relaxation and meditation

A final word on managing stress

According to writers in the field, stress can have a positive effect! Stress in healthy doses has the effect of stimulating motivation and alertness, providing the incentive needed to overcome challenging situations.


This article is correct at 06/08/2015

The information in this article is provided as part of Legal-Island's Employment Law Hub. We regret we are not able to respond to requests for specific legal or HR queries and recommend that professional advice is obtained before relying on information supplied anywhere within this article.

Emer Hinphey
Think People Consulting

The main content of this article was provided by Emer Hinphey. Contact telephone number is 028 9031 0450 or email

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