In a 2020 study by the Labour Force Survey, it was found that 79% of workers commonly experience work-related or occupational stress. Occupational stress refers to the stress experienced by an employee due to their working life, including their working conditions, responsibilities, role, time pressure and workload. The occurrence of occupational stress has been steadily increasing for the last few years. Recently, the coronavirus pandemic has accelerated it further with rates now significantly higher than pre-pandemic levels. However, research from CIPD suggests that, disappointingly, there is less focus on wellbeing now than there was at the beginning of the pandemic.
Prevalence of Occupational Stress
Occupational stress is more prevalent in some industries and occupations, with rates being significantly higher in public administration, health, social work and education. The main factors attributing to work-related stress, as cited by respondents to the Labour Force Survey, were workload pressures, tight deadlines and too much responsibility. Job insecurity, changes at work, bullying and lack of support were also cited as common factors.
Causes of Occupational Stress
Anyone who works may be vulnerable to occupational stress and, while the cause varies, some common factors include:
- Conflicts with colleagues or between departments
- Discrimination and bullying
- Poor management or micromanagement
- Lack of support from line managers, leaders or HR
- Communication issues
- Role uncertainty
- Lack of opportunities for progression
- Job insecurity
Whatever the cause, the effects of occupational stress can cause significant damage to the well-being and the productivity of a workforce. Furthermore, under UK health and safety legislation, employers have a duty of care for their staff. This includes protecting employees from workplace stress.
The Importance of Management
Good line management is crucial in supporting staff wellbeing, spotting signs of stress and initiating early intervention. Line managers play a vital part in identifying when colleagues act out of character or notice behavioural changes. If you feel you are concerned that a co-worker is having difficulties, the earlier you address the issue, the more you can reduce the impact of adverse mental health issues.
The Stress Response Cycle
The response to occupational stress can be divided into three stages. These can help you identify if a colleague is struggling with occupational stress and, if so, how severe it is.
Stage 1: Alarm
This is a physiological response to stress. Sensing danger triggers the “fight or flight” response. The “fight” could be getting angry and shouting and the “flight” could be storming out of a room and maybe saying nothing. Adrenaline surges to all parts of the body resulting in sleep issues, increased heart rate and the release of the stress hormone, cortisol.
Stage 2: Resistance
It’s okay if this response is a one off or just an occasional occurrence, as your body has time to recover and return to its normal state. However, with prolonged stress, the body has very little chance to recover. Sleep deprivation, fatigue, irritability and concentration issues may occur as the body continues to respond to stress.
Stage 3: Exhaustion
Once the body’s mental and physical defence systems are inhibited, eventually the body simply succumbs to the unending stress and completely shuts down. This burnout stage can lead to:
- Heart disease
- High blood pressure
- Stomach ulcers
- Sleep disorders
- Psychiatric disorders
What Can Managers Do to Reduce the Level of Occupational Stress for Their Team?
The HSE Management Standards cover six key areas of work design which, if managed properly, can help reduce the incidence and severity of occupational stress. The standards are Demands, Control, Support, Relationships, Role and Change.
To meet the Management Standards, here are some suggestions for you:
- Get to know your team. Ask how they are and take an interest in their life away from work.
- Let them know that you recognise work-related stress as a real problem and that you are committed to helping reduce it.
- Maintain a safe working environment with zero tolerance to bullying.
- Promote dialogue and normalise talking about mental health.
- Include wellbeing on the agenda for team meetings.
- Review workloads and responsibilities.
- Reduce job demands where possible to cut down on physiological and psychological effects.
- Ensure everyone receives the necessary training for all the duties their job entails.
- Employ extra staff or re-organise job duties to reduce the necessity of overtime.
- Create opportunities for career development.
- Give employees greater prospects for promotion and advancement.
The Key Take Away
Taking occupational stress seriously, putting it on the agenda, and taking action is imperative for your organisation’s success. If you are in a management position, our Stress Management for Managers course is designed to support you to do this confidently and effectively. Completing the course will help you recognise potential stress triggers, prevent stressful situations from developing or increasing, and gives you practical ways to manage stress at work effectively.