Understanding stress

'Stress is the feeling of being under too much mental or emotional pressure.' (NHS - What is stress)

Stress can affect how you feel, think, or behave and how your body works. Common signs of stress include anxiety, irritability, sleeping problems, sweating, loss of appetite and difficulty concentrating.

Stress can manifest itself at an individual level or team level. Common indicators include marked changes in behaviour, increased sickness absence, poor timekeeping, or a drop in performance.

A good starting point to learn more about work-related stress is the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) government guidance: http://www.hse.gov.uk/stress/what-to-do.htm

Be vigilant and approachable

Never ignore the signs of stress. As a manager, you have a responsibility for the health and safety of your staff which includes risks to their mental health. You are in the best position both to notice and to help if someone you work with is suffering from stress and requires additional support.

Work-related stress is best dealt with at an early stage; if staff feel they can approach you with issues as they occur, it will increase the likelihood of swift and more straightforward resolution of any difficulties.

As well as responding to signs of stress, you have a critical role in minimising the risk of stressful circumstances and situations arising for your staff. For more information on stress prevention visit http://www.hse.gov.uk/stress/help-employee.htm or attend our in-house training on Understanding and Managing Work-related Stress.

If you have particular concerns about work-related stress in your team advice is available from your HR Adviser. You may also wish to undertake a Staff Wellbeing Survey or a more formal risk assessment - further information about these is available on the Health & Safety webpages.

Discuss the issues with your employee

Identifying causes of stress (work or home) can usually be achieved through discussion with the individual.

It is a good idea to have an informal meeting away from your usual work place to put the individual at ease, prevent interruptions and ensure privacy.

Try to encourage open, honest communication to establish the extent to which the individual is feeling stressed and the possible cause(s) in a supportive context. Make sure you allow adequate time to talk as it can be unhelpful and off-putting to prematurely cut off a productive conversation.

Ask open questions and give the individual the time and opportunity to explain what they are experiencing. If the situation is complex or unclear you may find it useful to use an Individual Stressor Questionnaire (ISQ).

Avoid comparing their issues and circumstances to yourself or others. There is little to be gained by explaining that 'everyone else is managing' or that you are also feeling stressed. Stay focussed on the member of staff and what they are experiencing.

Once the extent and causes of stress have been established, be careful not to over-promise on what you can deliver - manage the individual's expectations to ensure that they are realistic about what can be done, and what timescales might apply.

In all cases, make individuals aware of the University's Employee Assistance Service, Health Assured.

Use Health Assured's managerial advice line

Managers have access to an independent, confidential managerial advice line that can offer emotional and practical support in dealing with a wide range of management issues:

  • 0800 030 5182

The service also provides a wide range of helpsheets on topics such as effective communication, listening skills, delivering bad news, bullying, and conflict in the workplace. To access the full range of support visit
http://healthassuredeap.com (username: university; password: york)

Sources of work-related stress

The HSE Management Standards define six primary sources of stress at work:

  • Demands - issues such as workload, work patterns and the work environment
  • Control - how much say the person has in the way they do their work
  • Support - encouragement, sponsorship and resources provided by the organisation, line management and colleagues
  • Relationships - promoting positive working to avoid conflict and dealing with unacceptable behaviour
  • Role - whether people understand their role within the organisation and whether the organisation ensures that they do not have conflicting roles
  • Change - how organisational change (large or small) is managed and communicated

Understanding what is causing the stress is the first step to minimising its effect. This table gives some examples of common practices and support mechanisms that may already be in place, or could be considered.

Individual Stress Questionnaire (ISQ)

This asks questions based on the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) standards for identifying stress in the workplace. It will help the person pinpoint exactly what is causing the feelings of stress so you can work together to put solutions in place.

Questions to ask if the stress is work-related

If the stressors appear to be work-related, it is important that action is taken. As a manager, you should consider the following questions:

  • Can the stressors be removed or reduced? (be realistic)
  • If not, what support can be given to the individual to help them cope?
  • What resources are needed / available to help?
  • Are there HR policies, such as flexible working, that can be used in this case?
  • What is the impact on others of any work adjustments?
  • What follow-up actions / checks are needed?
  • Have my management practices had an impact on the situation? Are there things I can do better in the future to support my staff?

Actions to respond to a report of work-related stress should be agreed with the individual and documented, wherever possible, in a wellbeing action plan so that progress can be reviewed regularly.

Trade unions support / representation

If the member of staff is a member of a trade union, they can talk to their representative who might be able to attend meetings with them and support them in developing solutions to the stress.

Short term adjustments

As a manager you may consider putting temporary adjustments in place to help the individual cope in the short-term whilst other steps are taken to remove or reduce the causes of stress.

Adjustments might include relieving the individual of some work tasks, considering leave in special circumstances; reduced hours, flexible start / finish times, a temporary change of working environment, or referral to other sources of help.

If the stress is work-related and short-term adjustments are unlikely to resolve the situation you may need to consider longer-term alternatives. This may involve permanent redistribution of work tasks; introducing a different working pattern via the flexible working policy; work to improve team cohesion; mediation; or access to personal development training, coaching or mentoring.

Further advice on reasonable adjustments is available from your HR Adviser.

Wellbeing Action Plan

Once reasonable steps to minimise or remove the stressors have been agreed, they should be recorded, either informally or using a Wellbeing Action Plan [MS Word]. Actions should be reviewed regularly with the person until the situation is resolved or they are feeling better.

Referral to Occupational Health

Occupational Health can advise on supportive measures which may help resolve difficulties with stress.

A referral to Occupational Health should always be considered, but may not always be necessary. Your HR Adviser and if necessary the Occupational Health Adviser may be able to assist with such decisions.

It is advisable that a referral to Occupational Health is made in the following circumstances:

  • When the management relationship with the person has become difficult or broken down
  • When the person is reporting as sick, particularly if the person has already been off work due to stress for two weeks or more
  • Where there are other underlying health problems which may require additional consideration and support eg anxiety and depression which may have been triggered or exacerbated by stress.

Further information, including referral documentation, is available from Occupational Health.

GP / doctor support

If the individual's symptoms of stress are getting worse and / or having an adverse impact upon their work and general wellbeing the member of staff might find it useful to talk to their doctor.