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Stress at Work: a simple guide

Stress at work is a major problem. According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), 914,000 workers in Great Britain suffered work-related stress, depression or anxiety in 2021/22. This caused 17 million lost working days — 55% of all working days lost to work-related ill health.1 This guide covers workplace stress — what it is, how to tackle it and when to seek help.

What is workplace stress?

To some degree, we’ve all probably experienced it. That buzz in the back of your head as a deadline approaches or emails pile up. Or you might feel uneasy in your stomach as an important presentation or pitch looms.

Often this is perfectly natural and a little of it can actually do you good — this is known as ‘optimal stress’.2  The shot of cortisol and adrenaline moderate stress causes can actually increase output and productivity.

However, the risks are when we pass our personal threshold for stress and never ‘come down’ from the peak.

The signs of stress at work

Given stress can rise to the point it becomes a problem, it’s important to recognise the signs of stress. These include:

  • Becoming easily agitated or frustrated
  • An uncharacteristically bad mood
  • Avoiding colleagues/personal interactions
  • A loss of confidence/self-esteem
  • Reduced engagement
  • Forgetfulness and difficulty focusing
  • Exhibiting worsened judgement
  • Being uncharacteristically pessimistic/negative
  • Arriving late
  • Not taking lunch breaks
  • If they smoke, increased smoking breaks
  • Missing deadlines
  • Nervous behaviours such as nail biting, fidgeting or pacing
  • Tiredness
  • Becoming more prone to colds and infections
  • Rapid weight fluctuations.

Unfortunately, hybrid working could make it more difficult for employers to spot employees struggling with their mental wellbeing due to reduced physical contact.

Causes of stress at work

Recognising and knowing how to tackle stress is something all companies, big or small, need to prepare for. However, ideally employees would never become so stressed that it caused a situation that needs to be acknowledged and tackled.

It’s an old saying, but very relevant — prevention truly is better than cure. By the time an employee is so stressed it becomes a condition and causes sickness absence, the cost for them is already too great.

That’s why it’s important to know what the causes of stress are, so you can act on them early.

According to the HSE, the top causes of stress at work are:

  • Being unable to cope with the demands of their job
  • Lack of control over how to do their work
  • Lack of information and support
  • Difficulties with relationships at work, including bullying
  • Not fully understanding their role and responsibilities
  • Feeling disengaged as the business goes through change.3

Why is this a problem?

As mentioned, in small doses and with proper recovery periods, stress can boost productivity. However, employees facing long-term, chronic stress can quickly become too unwell to work. This is too big a price to pay.

Not only can it lead to an employee or employees suffering sickness absence — which itself is unacceptable for a preventable problem — but reducing employees’ stress levels can boost morale, cut sickness absence and increase productivity.

79% of respondents to a Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) survey reported some stress-related absence within their organisation in the past 12 months,4 it’s easy to see why this can impact employers’ bottom lines as well as wreaking havoc for employees.

It’s here an offering such as Unum’s Wellbeing Check could prove invaluable. This provides a 1-2-1 coaching session with an employee struggling with their wellbeing.

Tackling stress if it occurs

The first priority should be ensuring your company has a proper health and wellbeing policy. However, doing so can be daunting. 

If you’re not sure where to start, Unum’s Workplace Health and Wellbeing Review can help. This examines your current mental health and wellbeing strategy in line with the government’s 'Thriving at Work' and the Mental Health at Work Commitment. We then provide an action plan of suggested improvements and 12 months of support and check-ins to help implement them.

Upskilling line managers is also crucial so they can spot signs of stress, be a sympathetic ear for employees experiencing it and know how to react to nip the problem in the bud.

With Unum, our range of On Course workshops form part of our focus on illness prevention. Every workshop aimed at line managers is CPD-accredited and include online learning e-modules, such as Stress Awareness. Here, you’ll learn about recognising stress, spotting the signs, managing it and your role as a line manager in keeping you and your team healthy.

What's the solution?

The overwhelming message from all this is that stress at work to the point it affects an employee’s wellbeing isn’t inevitable. Indeed, it’s preventable.

However, if stress occurs, it’s vital to support your employees through it. Internally, you can:

  • Remind staff to take periods of rest and recovery, which includes lunch breaks
  • Check employees take leave they’re entitled to. Annual leave is a health and safety requirement; it’s not just to jet off around the world and lie on beaches (as much as we’d like it to be!)
  • Ensure managers lead by example and take their own leave without resorting to working from their sunlounger
  • Encourage healthy use of digital technology so people can fully switch off outside work hours rather than remaining ‘always on’
  • Be aware of workloads and intervene if an employee is facing unreasonable demands.

You could also choose to use experts from outside your organisation to help if you have such resources available when an employee starts to feel stressed. 

Many employee benefits, such as the Group Risk policies on offer from Unum, come with added-value services that offer a wealth of support in this area. For example, Help@hand,5 Unum’s award-winning health and wellbeing app, offers multiple mental health and wellbeing support services in one single app — including unlimited counselling sessions with a mental health professional.6

If every employer can put robust preventative measures in place, as well as offering avenues to treat stress should it occur, that headline figure for work-related stress absences may start to go down. This will benefit employers and employees alike.


1 Work-related stress, anxiety or depression statistics in Great Britain 2022, Health and Safety Executive
2 How to turn everyday stress into ‘optimal stress’,
McKinsey & Company
3 Work-related stress and how to manage it,
Health and Safety Executive
4 Health and wellbeing at work 2022,
5 Help@hand is provided to Unum Group customers by Square Health. It offers access to services designed to manage the health and wellbeing of employees and their families. Help@hand is entirely separate from any Unum insurance policy. Help@hand is not part of the insurance contract, is provided by Unum for no additional cost to its customers, and Unum can withdraw or change the service in the future. Help@hand is available to UK residents only. Unum offers access to the Help@hand services provided by third parties. 

Square Health Limited, registered in England and Wales Number 07054181. Crown House, William Street, Windsor SL4 1AT.
6 For mild to moderate issues. Number of sessions subject to clinical appropriateness. Should the service be no longer suitable, users will be directed to alternative appropriate support

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