Workplace Stress


What is stress?

There are many definitions of stress. Just as there are many definitions of fatigue, of mental health and upset. These terms describe a wide range of experiences and not entirely clear cut.

Stress is a negative experience/ feeling, associated with new physical symptoms. These including increased heartbeat, swiftness of breath, dry mouth, upset stomach and sweaty palms and over the longer term, more serious digestive upset, cramp and raised blood pressure/cardiovascular disease.

Psychological symptoms range from racing thoughts and speech, , lack of impulse control, and feelings of being overpowered, losing control and fearfulness generally. People behave differently to their 'normal' behaviour when under stress. They may be angrier, more confrontational, show less time for others and impose an urgency on situations which is unrealistic for those around them.

Other characteristics can include fatigue, proneness to upset, withdrawal, self neglect and depression. There is no telling which way a person will react to the stress situation, but each person will behave differently to their previous non-stressed state.

When we are aware of our feelings, thoughts and behaviours as well as our bodily reactions, we can assess ourselves as either relaxed, under slight pressure which we are coping with, under pressure we are finding challenging but acceptable, or under excessive pressure which is causing us stress.

Coping with stress

We all have different coping abilities and a different tolerance for stress. There are those, often categorised as ‘Type A’ personalities, who tolerate relatively high stress levels and thrive on the stimulation and alertness brought about by stress. There are others who have very low tolerance levels and thrive in slow moving environments with low stimulation and even paced work.

Coping skills can be improved through regular training for specific tasks – for instance, if a person finds meeting and greeting people stressful, increased exposure to this, skills training and familiarisation can give them the coping skills to reduce their stress from this experience.

Stress management training and increasing self-awareness and learning to react effectively when we becoming stressed are all important in helping individuals deal with their stress reaction. We may need to take more exercise, build in more relaxation time, alter our social habits, alter the way we view things, change the work system in some way or re-engineer our work so as to reduce our exposure to the cause of the stress.

The occupational health approach is to reduce the stress from source, initially, then reduce the person-stressor interaction, and finally, give protection to the exposed person, when they are exposed. The approach usually involves the individual, the department or section in which the individual works and the organisation, so that general and specific stressors are reduced or eliminated, as far as possible.

Many aspects of personal, family and work life can cause stress, in that there are pressures embedded within all of these areas of our lives.

The HSA is tasked with helping develop and promote preventive systems at workplace level. The Work Positive Programme is an assessment of employee’s perception of the stressors they recognise due to work factors only. Numerous factors at work can lead to potential stress and diminish our emotional and physical well being if gone unsupported or unchecked.

These aspects of the workplace can be labelled psychosocial hazards in some health and safety models, because they threaten mental health in the same way as physical hazards threaten the physical safety and health of employees.

Social support is a mediator of stress. It helps reduce the effects of a stressful situation. We all know that when we feel we have a person or persons to talk to, problem solve with or share a difficult experience with, it help relieve some of our distress. In stressful environments, where support is available and accessed, the perception of the stressor and the resultant stress will be reduced.

To do a risk assessment for workplace stress, the Authority promotes what is called a Work Positive Audi Tool. On this site you will find a description of two recent work positive projects

  1. 2005 - 2007
  2. 2008 - 2009

The model of workplace stress used for this Work Positive programme is a mixture of:

  • The Demand/Control /Support Model (Karasek and Theorell)
  • The Effort Reward Imbalance Model (Siegrist)
  • An amalgam of other more recent models which point to change, relationships and role


Two workplace stress guidance documents are available, one for employers and one for employees.

Work Related Stress A Guide for Employers

Work Related Stress Information Sheet for Employees

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Demands

This includes issues like workload, work patterns, and the work environment

The standard is that:

  • Employees indicate that they are able to cope with the demands of their jobs;
  • Systems are in place locally to respond to any individual concerns.    


What should be happening / states to be achieved:

  • The organisation provides employees with adequate and achievable demands in relation to the agreed hours of work;
  • Employee skills and abilities are matched to the job demands;
  • Jobs are designed to be within the capabilities of employees; and
  • Employees’ concerns about their work environment are addressed.


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Control

This is about how much authority employees have about the way they do their work

The standard is that:

  • Employees indicate that they are able to have some input as to the way they do their work; and
  • Systems are in place locally to respond to any individual concerns.


What should be happening / states to be achieved:

  • Where possible, employees have some control over some aspects of their work;
  • Employees are encouraged to use their skills and initiative to do their work;
  • Where possible, employees are encouraged to develop new skills to undertake new and challenging pieces of work;
  • Employees have some input into when breaks can be taken, where possible; and
  • Employees are consulted over their work patterns/rosters/shifts.


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Support

This includes the encouragement, sponsorship and resources provided by the organisation, line management and colleagues.

The standard is that:

  • Employees indicate that they receive adequate information and support from their colleagues and superiors; and
  • Systems are in place locally to respond to any individual concerns.


What should be happening / states to be achieved:

  • The organisation has policies and procedures to adequately support employees;
  • Systems are in place to enable and encourage managers to support their staff;
  • Systems are in place to enable and encourage employees to support their colleagues;
  • Employees know what support is available and how and when to access it;
  • Employees know how to access the required resources to do their job; and
  • Employees receive regular and constructive feedback.


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Role

This refers to how people understand their role within the organisation, and whether the organisation ensures that the person does not have conflicting roles. The standard is that:

  • Employees indicate that they understand their role and responsibilities; and
  • Systems are in place locally to respond to any individual concerns.


What should be happening / states to be achieved:

  • The organisation ensures that, as far as possible, the different requirements it places upon employees are compatible;
  • The organisation provides information to enable employees to understand their role and responsibilities;
  • The organisation ensures that, as far as possible, the requirements it places upon employees are clear; and
  • Systems are in place to enable employees to raise concerns about any uncertainties or conflicts they have in their role and responsibilities.


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Change

How organisational change (large or small) is managed and communicated in the organisation.

The standard is that:

  • Employees indicate that the organisation engages with them frequently when undergoing an organisational change; and
  • Systems are in place locally to respond to any individual concerns.


What should be happening / states to be achieved:

  • The organisation provides employees with timely information to enable them to understand the reasons for proposed changes;
  • The organisation ensures adequate employee consultation on changes and provides opportunities for employees to influence proposals;
  • Employees are aware of the probable impact of any changes to their jobs. If necessary, employees are given training to support any changes in their jobs;
  • Employees are aware of timetables for changes;
  • Employees have access to relevant support during changes.


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Reward and Contribution

The standard is that:

  • Employees indicate they are fairly paid and are happy with their non-monetary benefits;
  • Systems are in place for individuals’ concerns to be raised and addressed. 


What should be happening / states to be achieved:

  • The organisation regularly reviews employee salaries and benefits;
  • The organisation monitors pay and benefits against the external market place;
  • Employees are consulted as part of reviews of benefits;
  • Systems are in place to ensure that the contribution of employees is recognised; and
  • Employees are provided with positive feedback on their performance if they do a job well.


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Indicators

The standard is that:

  • Employees indicate that pressure at work does not affect their health;
  • Systems are in place to monitor and review common indicators of high pressure at work.


What should be happening / states to be achieved:

  • The organisation monitors accidents and identifies their causes;
  • The organisation has a Health and Safety Policy in place;
  • The organisation monitors sickness absence and identifies reasons for absence;
  • The organisation monitors turnover of staff and identifies reasons for resignation;
  • Systems are in place to enable and encourage managers to identify and manage low morale among staff;
  • The organisation monitors the performance/productivity of its staff; and
  • Systems are in place for employees to raise concerns about their health and safety at work.


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The Role of the HSA

Stress is not reportable to the HSA. No illnesses are reportable and stress, not actually being an illness is not reportable. There is no duty on employers to report absences due to stress. There is no method for investigating stress on a par with investigating accidents. However, employers are bound under the 2005 Act to protect employees from all hazards which can lead to injury. A stressor is a potential hazard which can lead to personal injury in the form of mental ill health. Risk assessments should include assessments of stressors in the work environment, control measures and monitoring and review, in consultation with staff.

The HSA give information and advice to individuals and to groups on the topic and we advise and assist employers in putting in place a system for addressing and controlling stress. We also develop tools to be used to assess stress in organisation. Work Positive is one tool that informs employers and employees about Work-related Stress and also involves a questionnaire, which identifies where the main sources of stress are coming from within a company. It has been widely used in Irish organisations and will soon be used in the UK too. We have noted that one of the main causes of stress is bullying and we have in place best practice systems for dealing with bullying in order to minimise the stress that it causes.

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Publications

The HSA has produced the following two publications, both of which are available for free download from this website:

Work Related Stress A Guide for Employers

Work Related Stress Information Sheet for Employees

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