Stress is a common occurrence in everyday life and is a natural response by the body to a vast array of physical and emotional stimulants. For the majority of people, at the right levels, occasional feelings of stress are not likely to cause any serious damage, however the trouble starts when the scales start to tip the wrong way and you experience prolonged periods of high stress and worry.

The workplace is often a primary source of stress, driven by ever competitive environments, job security uncertainty and the increasingly 24/7 nature of the modern working life which is in part fuelled by the ‘always-present’ technology and devices, preventing many from fully switching off, even at weekends and on annual leave. In this article, we explore how to determine if you are suffering from workplace stress, what you should be expecting of your employer and what to do if you feel you are unduly suffering.

The effects of stress on the individual, as well as the importance of good mental health, have been much more prominent issues recently than ever before, and as a result, employers’ are increasingly recognising their responsibility when it comes to the mental wellbeing of their staff. In the 2015-16 periods, almost 500,000 cases of workplace stress were recorded, which works out to around 1500 people affected in every 100,000. During the same period, a cumulative twelve million sick days were taken as a result of workplace stress, with those affected taking an average of 29 days off work sick every year.

Forms of Stress

Workplace stress takes on many forms and is caused by many factors. Some of the most common sources of workplace stress include:

  • Excessive or insufficient workload

  • Micromanagement

  • Lack of support from colleagues and management

  • Lack of training or progress

  • Promotion beyond capability

  • Worries about job security

  • Abuse or bullying from colleagues

  • Poor management

  • Uncomfortable or unsuitable working environment

Employers’ Responsibilities

The Management Standard says that employers are required to have policies in place that minimise the risks of employees encountering stress in the workplace, and that sources of stress are proactively recognised and removed from the workplace. However, many employers know the short- and long-term benefits of ensuring that their staff is content and that their interests are taken care of, and so take extra measures beyond these basic obligations. Regular reviews with individuals to see how they are don’t take long, but are very effective at monitoring employee welfare, as well as nurturing open and trusting working relationships.

The Effects of Workplace Stress

Work related stress often causes a chain reaction, and the effects can end up impacting every facet of a person’s life. Although every individual will react differently, it is common for early symptoms to manifest in emotions and mental health, such as:

  • Feelings of anxiety, worry and panic

  • Short temper and irritability

  • Lack of confidence and enthusiasm

  • Emotional sensitivity

  • Poor concentration

The accumulation of emotional issues such as these can lead to physical symptoms that have further impact on a person’s performance at work and general wellbeing. Common physical symptoms associated with work related stress include:

  • Fatigue

  • Weakened immune system, leading to frequent illness

  • Headaches or migraines

  • Chest pains and trouble breathing

  • Nausea and indigestion

From here, a person’s behaviour and approach to life can be altered drastically, creating a vicious cycle of symptoms and reactions to them. They may have trouble sleeping, or sleep too much, while they may lose or gain significant amounts of weight due to changes to diet. Their social or home lives may suffer, and they may even turn to damaging habits to relieve the stress, such as drinking or taking drugs. These behaviours, in turn, have their own effect on an individual’s work life, usually aggravating an already difficult situation.

What to Do

Workplace stress can be a particularly difficult thing to deal with, as people feel pressure to maintain a professional dynamic in the workplace that makes it hard to discuss or even acknowledge experiencing it. It is common for people to fear that their working relationships, or the way others perceive them, will be irreparably damaged if they reveal they are experiencing work related stress, or that they may even lose their job as a result.

But employers have a responsibility to every person they hire to provide them with a workplace that cares about their wellbeing and takes steps to ensure it, and nobody should suffer in silence.

It is a good idea to keep a diary or record of the stress experienced, noting what caused it, how it manifested and the effect it has on life both in and out of work. Patterns may be noticeable after a while, and this record will be useful when it comes to addressing the issue of stress with an employer. Any impact on life outside of work or the individual’s financial situation should also be noted.

Seeing a counsellor is another advisable step, particularly if discussing the issues with others seems difficult. They can suggest ways to deal with the stress healthily, and how to approach tackling the problem within the workplace.

If it seems that an employer is not fulfilling their obligations and doing enough to prevent and tackle work related stress, it can be worth seeking legal advice. Particularly if stress has been the cause of losses, financial and otherwise, it may be that the case may warrant compensation. Here, a diary of instances of stress directly caused by the workplace will be very useful. A legal expert who deals with personal injury and other compensation claims will be in a position to examine the finer details of a case of stress, and deduce where legal liability would be placed.

If a legal expert believes that an employer has not fulfilled their legal responsibility and caused an employee stress as a result, they will be able to guide the employee through the legal process of how to claim stress at work compensation.