The last year has been a particularly stressful one for many as COVID-19 restrictions have impacted almost every area of daily life. Often employees have had to adapt to homeworking, cope with the challenges of juggling work commitments with caring responsibilities as well as being isolated from work colleagues, family and friends. To coincide with Stress Awareness Month 2021, we highlight the impact that stress can have in the workplace and offer our tips on how employers can help to prevent work related stress and promote mental wellbeing in the workplace.

Impact of stress in the workplace

It is well known that high levels of stress within a workforce can have negative impacts on productivity, attendance, morale and employee well-being. If employees are struggling to manage feelings of stress, it may lead to illnesses such as anxiety and depression.

HSE statistics show that in 2019/2020, there were 828,000 workers who suffered from work-related stress, depression or anxiety (new or long-standing) and 17.9 million working days were lost as a result. In the same period stress, depression and anxiety accounted for 51% of all work-related ill health cases and 55% of all working days lost due to work-related ill health.

In addition, the Stress Management Society's recent study with 2,000 nationally representative British adults, found that 65% of people have felt more stressed since March 2020 when the COVID-19 restrictions began.

Stress alone, without something more, is unlikely to be a classed as a disability under the Equality Act. However, employers should be live to the fact that someone who appears to be stressed at work; who is taking more time off work than usual; or whose behaviour has changed in the workplace may be suffering from an underlying health problem which could be a disability. If this is the case, a failure to tackle the problem and consider reasonable adjustments risks a disability discrimination claim.

Employers therefore have an invested interest in ensuring workplace stress is managed and there is an open culture that allows employees to feel comfortable discussing their stress-related concerns. With this in mind:

What can employers be doing to tackle workplace stress?

  • Have a policy which covers both mental ill health and stress at work, informing employees of what to do should they feel stressed at work, or if they are experiencing mental ill health. This will also assist line managers and senior management in handling stress at work situations effectively and consistently. Workbox by Brodies users can access a template policy here.
  • Comply with your legal obligation to ensure the health, safety and welfare of your employees by assessing the risk of work-related stress as part of your health and safety risk assessments. Identifying any clear stressors and removing them early can prevent stress-related issues arising. Some employers also carry out additional stress audits, asking employees to identify any concerns regarding work-related stress.
  • Regularly monitor and manage workloads to ensure employees are not feeling overburdened, as particularly during periods of remote working, it won't be as easy to identify capacity levels. This could include organising a phone or video call with employees to see how they are getting on, as they may be juggling competing work and personal demands. Excessive workloads can lead to increased risks of burn out, stress and anxiety – particularly if adequate support is not provided.
  • Promote a culture where employees can freely discuss stress as well as other mental ill health issues and create open lines of communication between employees and their line managers: early intervention can be vital. Consider adding helpful information and resources to your intranet, such as wellbeing guides, online classes, or details of trained mental health first aiders.
  • Consider what support network is in place for employees and ensure that it's well signposted. It's important to ensure that all employees are regularly reminded of the services they can access. Confidential employee assistance/counselling services can be helpful for those who do not wish to discuss their concerns with their line manager/HR.
  • Provide training for all levels of management and HR to assist in identifying symptoms of stress and how to tackle stressors at an early stage.