Stress Management

by Helen Whitten

Your responsibilities as a manager

Stress is often a symptom of poor employment relations and can seriously affect productivity. Organisations who talk regularly with their employees and have sound systems and procedures in place for dealing with issues such as absence and discipline are much more likely to avoid work-related stress and be able to deal with potentially stressful situations when they arise.


The Health and Safety Executive have developed strategies to reduce work-related ill-health, and provide guidance for organisations to help them tackle the problem of stress.

The consequence of this is that managers have some responsibility for preventing and managing stress in the workplace. You obviously cannot control what happens in a colleague’s personal life, nor in the world in general. However, there are six factors, listed below, that do fall within your remit of responsibility, and those for whom you are responsible should feel confident in these areas:

  1. Job demands – staff should be able to cope with the demands of the job
  2. Control – they should have an adequate say concerning how the work is done
  3. Support – they require adequate support from colleagues and superiors
  4. Roles – they should be clear as to roles and responsibilities
  5. Relationships – they should not be subjected to unacceptable behaviours
  6. Change – they should be involved in organisational changes.

Risk assessment

The HSE Management standards for work-related stress, launched in November 2004, encourages organisations to focus on prevention by starting with a risk assessment measured against the six factors above. This should lead to the development of an organisational stress policy.

The assessment can be carried out internally or through external consultants. The options are either to have focus groups and a forum to share experiences informally through questions, or to take the more formal route of an employee attitude survey, covering the six areas listed.

Where problems are identified, you can use the same forum of informal focus groups and suggestion boxes to develop solutions, gathering the experience of your colleagues and direct reports in order to agree specific outcomes and changes.

To meet the requirements, you will need to have a formal and explicit action plan with regard to how you will tackle the issues that have arisen, including organisational and cultural change as well as – potentially - training, to provide people with the resources and tools they need to manage situations. This training can cover hard and soft skills: for example, if someone cannot adequately manage a piece of software because they have not had the right training, this can cause that person stress; equally, stress management training courses or assertiveness classes could well be another option.

Measurement is helpful here, as this builds in an element of review to ensure that the interventions have been helpful.


Although the standards are voluntary, the HSE has indicated that they will be used as evidence against employers should they continue to ignore their responsibilities in managing stress under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974.

Currently, the HSE are pursuing a focus on prevention. The objectives include

  • Implementing a national Stress Programme
  • Reducing the incidence of stress by eight per cent nationally
  • Reducing the number of people first reporting awareness of work-related stress by the end of the 2007/08
  • Focusing on five key working sectors that report the highest incidence of stress-related ill health - health, education, central government, local government and the financial services.

For more information on health in the workplace, visit the HSE website (Management standards for work-related stress).

See also the topic on Attendance Management: Workplace stress.

Are they malingering?

Sometimes, of course, you may suspect that someone is not really stressed, but is simply a malingerer. To assess the true situation, you will need to analyse and observe carefully. Most people aren’t malingerers, but of course you do get some of them.

Key point

Don’t consider whether you personally could manage: consider whether they, as an individual personality, are being expected to manage something that is obviously beyond them.

If the person appears to be very stressed in the workplace, review the situation practically and try to see it from their perspective.

If the task should not be beyond them, then try to get involved and help them. You can also pick up clues about other areas of their lives – for example, are they doing all kinds of other activities and hobbies outside the workplace that might hint that they are fitter than they are saying? Also observe their physical symptoms and check the validity of these through discussion and, where relevant, with a medical advisor.

If it’s too much for them...

What can you do if, having kept an eye on the situation, you believe that someone simply cannot carry the stress involved in a job they have been promoted into?

This is a tricky one and it is advisable to talk with your HR Department about this before discussing it with the person concerned. You want to be aware of the legal implications of any approach. However, I have known people who were promoted into a role that they could not manage and who were delighted when given the opportunity to share their problems with their boss and develop solutions. So if you really feel that someone is in over their heads, be compassionate: it can be a horrible feeling. Look to see if there might be ways that you can keep them in the post, but with additional resource or support to help them grow into the role. Talk around the topic to begin with, so that you gain information from them and then, if you feel it appropriate, go ahead and address the situation with them in a collaborative rather than a judgemental way.