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In an office, there can be multiple demands and pressures. Pressure can be positive, as it can help motivate and increase work performance. However, if there are too many demands and too much pressure, a person may find that they cannot cope and may become stressed.
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) defines stress as “the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them”. Work-related stress is caused by or made worse by work. It is a psychosocial hazard that is commonly found in office-based environments.
According to the HSE, work-related stress is one of the most commonly reported causes of occupational ill health in Great Britain. The HSE estimates that over 11 million days are lost every year because of stress at work. Therefore, all employers should take stress seriously, as it is a significant hazard within the workplace.
Office politics and conflicts
Office-based employees work together quite closely and for long periods. Naturally, being in this situation can occasionally result in conflicts between individual employees and groups. There can also be a problem with office politics, e.g. power struggles and competition.
Conflicts can be caused by office politics, bullying and harassment. There is even the potential for violence where employees are physically attacked, threatened and verbally abused. These are often seen as human resources issues, but they can also affect employees’ health, safety and welfare.
Office politics, and conflicts, can adversely affect employees. They can be a cause of work-related stress, but can also have an impact on an employee’s mental health. In the long term, it can result in anxiety and depression. It can also adversely affect employers through increased sickness absence, reduced productivity and poor worker morale.
Causes of work-related stress
Stress at work can be caused by many different things and can also result from things going on at home, e.g. financial problems, relationship issues and bereavement. Stress at home can spill into a person’s working life and vice versa.
The HSE identifies six main areas that can cause work-related stress. These are:
- Too much or too little workload.
- Long working hours.
- Unrealistic targets and deadlines.
- Changing shift patterns.
- Emotional demands for some workers.
- Demanding work environment.
- Lack of control of the work.
- Lack of control of the working environment.
- Not involved in decision-making.
- Lack of management support.
- Lack of training, information and instruction.
- Poor working relationships with colleagues, e.g. conflict.
- Bullying and harassment from managers and colleagues.
- Lack of clarity about an employee’s role and responsibilities within an organisation.
- Conflicting demands.
- The threat of change.
- No or poor communication with regards to change.
These areas are from the HSE’s Management Standards approach and are useful in reducing the risk of work-related stress.
Everyone is at risk of stress. Most people experience stress at some point during their lives.
Whether a person is susceptible to stress will depend on many different factors, which can include:
- Background and culture.
- Ethnicity, age, gender or disability.
- Health status.
- Personal circumstances.
- Skills and experience.
- Personality and temperament.
- Other demands and pressures in and outside of work.
Stress affects people in different ways; some may be more resilient than others.
Work-related stress can happen in any industry and any occupation, including office-based environments.
Psychological and behavioural effects of stress
- Irritability and angry outbursts.
- Lack of concentration.
- Lack of self-esteem.
- Increased smoking and alcohol consumption.
- Lack of motivation.
- Loss of appetite or overeating.
- Personality disorders.
Physical effects of stress
- A rise in heart rate.
- Heart palpitations.
- Vision problems.
- Susceptibility to infection.
- Muscle tension.
- Panic attack.
- Heart disease.
- Skin and hair problems, e.g. Eczema and hair loss.
- High blood pressure.
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS).
- Sexual dysfunction.
Employers have a moral obligation to manage stress within the workplace, as it can seriously affect employees’ health.
Managing work-related stress
Before implementing the Management Standards, there should be a policy on work-related stress. It should cover a commitment from senior management on preventing it, how they will go about it and who is responsible for its implementation.
If the Management Standards are adopted, the organisation should be prepared beforehand. There must also be a commitment from leadership, management and employees. It is important to note that the HSE Management Standards do not have to be used by employers. However, if an employer uses this approach, they will be doing enough to comply with the law.
Work-related stress should be managed at an organisational level rather than an individual level. Of course, if an individual is experiencing stress then this will need to be dealt with case-by-case.
The HSE Management Standards can be used to develop control measures to reduce the risks of work-related stress.
Work-related stress can be managed by looking at the six areas in the Management Standards: demands, control, support, role, change and relationships.
Some ways to reduce the risks are as follows:
- Allowing regular breaks, particular during taxing work.
- Considering flexible working.
- Discussing any extension in working hours with employees and their representatives.
- Introducing fair work patterns.
- Having sufficient resources to cope with the demands.
- Training and advising employees on time management and workload prioritisation.
- Informing employees of who they can report to if demands are conflicting.
- Allowing employees to have an opportunity to say how their work is organised and completed, e.g. via performance reviews.
- Permitting employees to have some control over the pace of their work.
- Assigning responsibilities to teams rather than individuals.
- Encouraging employees to participate in decision-making.
- Evaluating employees’ existing skills and discussing with them how they would like to put them to use. It also includes learning new skills and personal development.
- Allowing employees opportunities to talk about any issues or pressures via regular one-to-one and team meetings.
- Shadowing employees to understand their role within the team.
- Having open-door policies or managers agreeing on times when they are available.
- Informing employees of any available external support, e.g. employee assistance programmes and counselling.
- Supporting employees who have been absent from work, as a result of work-related stress.
- Thoroughly inducting new employees. It should include information about the organisation, policies and procedures and how their role fits within the company. New employees should also be informed of support for work-related stress.
- Using performance reviews to monitor performance and discussing any support required to improve.
- Ensuring that employees receive regular communications about their role, e.g. one-to-one meetings.
- Making job descriptions relevant and clear. They should be revised regularly.
- Consulting employees and their representatives on any changes well in advance. There should be an opportunity for them to ask questions and to comment.
- Making employees aware of the reasons for changes and the key steps.
- Consulting and supporting employees during any changes.
- Making employees aware of any changes that affect jobs.
- Having policies and procedures in place for dealing with conflict, harassment and bullying in the workplace (e.g. grievance and disciplinary procedures).
- Defining unacceptable behaviour. It should be able to be reported via a confidential system.
- Training managers on how to deal with conflict, disputes and unacceptable behaviour.
Actions to take if stress is reported
If an employee is suffering from work-related stress or has a mental health problem, employers should take action.
- Talking – The first step in tackling work-related stress is talking. Employees should be encouraged to speak to their line manager. If they don’t feel comfortable speaking to their line manager, then they should approach a safety representative (trade unions), their General Practitioner (GP) or occupational health.
- Training – Line managers should be trained in stress management and should be able to spot the signs of work-related stress. Line managers should not try and diagnose or treat as it is not part of their job.
- Counselling and employee assistance programmes – External help such as counselling and employee assistance programmes can give employees support and assistance if they are suffering from work-related stress.
- Occupational health – Occupational health specialists can be used to intervene. They can assist with fitness to work, phased returns and work adjustments.
Reporting and taking action
If employees are absent from work due to stress, or mental health problems, it should be handled in line with the company sickness absence policy and stress policy. Employees may need reasonable adjustments to help them back to work.
It is important to note that the cause of the stress should be addressed. If it is not, the employee may not return and, if they do, they may have a case for a compensation claim.
Employees who are experiencing stress should be checked by a manager to see how they are feeling. They should be regularly monitored to make sure that the support provided is working and if any further help is required.
The HSE has many resources available for assisting employers in managing work-related stress.
- Talking toolkit.
- WBK01 – Tackling work-related stress using the Management Standards approach.
- INDG430 – How to tackle work-related stress. A guide for employers on making the Management Standards work.
Signs of positive health and safety culture:
- Good communication across all levels within the organisation.
- Visible leadership and commitment from senior management, e.g. directors and board members.
- All levels of management set a good example.
- Risk assessments are completed and are of a good standard.
- Accidents, incidents and near misses are reported, recorded and investigated.
- Lessons are learned from accidents, incidents and near misses.
- Employees are engaged in health and safety.
- Ownership of health and safety across the entire organisation.
- The organisation invests in health and safety and provides sufficient resources.
Signs of a negative health and safety culture:
- Management putting costs before health and safety.
- Frequent rule-breaking and violations.
- Failure to comply with company health and safety policies, procedures, risk assessments and safe systems of work.
- Not reporting, recording and investigating accidents, incidents and near misses.
- A blame culture, e.g. management blames the person for having an accident.
- High rates of sickness absence.
- Poor communication with regards to health and safety.
- Poor morale amongst workers and a lack of interest in health and safety.
There are many benefits of having a positive health and safety culture, even in an office. It will save the company money, will keep them on the right side of the law and will also fulfil their moral obligation towards employees.
For safety culture to be positive, there needs to be leadership from those at the top of the organisation. Good communication and consultation are also important.
Welfare at work
There is a legal requirement to provide suitable and sufficient welfare facilities under the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 and the Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992.
Welfare facilities include the following:
- Adequate ventilation, good air quality, suitable lighting and reasonable temperature (16°C usually or 13°C for demanding work).
- Cleanliness and waste disposal.
- Suitable workstations, room size and space.
- Floors and traffic routes that are free from obstruction.
- Toilets, changing areas and washing facilities (warm water and soap).
- Supply of drinking water.
- Places to eat and rest.
- Facilities for the disabled and for expectant mothers.
Suitable and sufficient means that the facilities should be appropriate for the type of work carried out, the working environment and the number of employees. You wouldn’t expect a workforce of 100 people to use 1 toilet. The office environment should be safe and healthy for employees and others.
If welfare facilities are not sufficient, it can result in physical and psychological illness. It can also cause low morale and low productivity if employees feel that the employer is not bothered about their welfare.