Stress at work: a simple guide

We're probably all familiar with workplace stress. That little buzz at the back of the head that signifies an approaching deadline or the uneasy feeling in the stomach as an important presentation or pitch looms.


A little stress at work can actually do you good - helping focus and preparing the body for action. But prolonged stress can lead to both physical and mental problems, and long-term absence. And that's when it becomes a problem for both the employee and the company they work for.

Recognising and knowing how to tackle stress is something all companies, big or small, need to be prepared for. This guide examines the causes of workplace stress and looks at what businesses can do to help protect their staff and themselves.

The size of the problem

According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), stress, depression and anxiety accounted for 44% of all work-related illness in 2018-19, with a loss of 12.8 million working days – an average of over 21 days per case.1

This is backed-up by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development's (CIPD) 2020 health and wellbeing report, which showed that stress is one of the biggest causes of long-term absence and the third highest cause of short-term absence behind minor illnesses and musculoskeletal injuries. And more than a third (37%) of respondents said that stress-related absence increased over the past year.2

Causes of stress


It's probably no surprise that the CIPD found workload is the most common cause of stress in the workplace, followed by management style, non-work factors (such as relationships or family), and workplace relationships in fourth.3

This ties in with HSE, who identified the top six causes of stress at work4 as:

  • the demands of the job
  • the control an employee has over their work
  • the support they receive from managers and colleagues
  • relationships in the workplace
  • the employee's role in the organisation
  • organisational change and how it's managed.

As well as the effect stress has on a person's health, it can cause a big drop in morale and productivity. Unchecked, it could potentially translate into increased staff turnover.

Research by Capita Employee Benefits for 2016-17 found that nearly half (44%) of employees know a colleague who quit work due to stress, and 75% of the UK employees interviewed had been stressed at work in the previous year.2

Why stress is a problem for employers


When you look at how many employees seem to be affected by stress at work, and the fact that it appears to be on the increase, it's perhaps surprising to hear that the CIPD found that a third (33%) of organisations that said stress has increased aren't bothering to tackle it. Especially when you consider the many ways that stress can wreak havoc on a business, including:



  • Absence due to sick days, long-term work-related illness or occupational injury
  • Productivity and revenue loss
  • A culture of absenteeism or presenteeism (employees coming into work when they're not really well enough to)
  • Decreased motivation or strained relations between employees
  • Ill colleagues spreading sickness to others
  • Poor general health and decreased wellbeing
  • Exhaustion and burn out, leading to long-term sick leave
  • Staff turn-over
  • Legal action against a business for failing to protect the physical or mental health of an employee while at work3

So, we know what it is, why it happens and the effects it can have, but what are the things businesses can do to better recognise, monitor and help stressed employees to cope?

How to help your employees


Recognising the signs

It's vital that employers are tuned in to how their employees are feeling. The symptoms of stress can appear in a number of ways, but here are some typical signs.

Emotional Your employee may seem sensitive to criticism, be irritable, have an uncharacteristic loss of confidence or self-esteem, and be less engaged.

Cognitive You may notice that your employee is making more mistakes than usual, is having problems making decisions, or is not able to concentrate.

Behavioural This could include things like arriving late, not taking lunch breaks, taking unofficial time off, not joining in with the team or office banter, or not hitting deadlines.

Physical Employees who are stressed sometime exhibit physical symptoms such as what seems like a constant cold, being tired at work, looking like they haven't made an effort with their appearance, or rapid weight loss or gain.

Coping with stress at work

Identifying a stressed employee is one thing, but helping them to cope with stress is quite another as they have no obligation to discuss their personal problems with managers. And with manager style and behaviour often cited as a major cause of workplace stress, managers clearly have a massive - and potentially tricky - role to play.

Acknowledging the problem exists is the first step. Understandably, many employers are worried about broaching the subject, being wrong or causing offence. And if the manager's actually the problem, a neutral third party is needed. A company's HR department typically provides an informal and independent sounding board.

Either the line manager or HR professional should ask the employee for a quiet word somewhere private and then let them know that they've noticed they've not been themselves and ask if they'd like to talk about it.

If they are willing, a meeting with HR could then be set up. The meeting should be confidential, non-threatening, open and provide an opportunity for the employee, the line manager and the HR professional to discuss and identify what support the business can offer to better help the employee to cope.

In an ideal world, this scenario wouldn't happen, but with increasingly busy lives it's a situation that employers are more and more likely to see. The good news is that there are things you can do to help reduce the incidence of stress-related problems arising in the workplace:

Effective communication

Effective communication channels between the workforce and managers go a long way to ensure people feel they have someone to talk to if their workload is spiralling out of control or they have other worries.

Ways of setting up good communication could include staff surveys, giving workers the opportunity to anonymously voice concerns about their jobs and even make suggestions as to how they would like to see management cut down on stress.

Short-term options:

When it comes to how you deal with stress in the workplace, it probably goes without saying that a long-term strategy is preferable. That said, there are a number of shorter-term tactics that you can implement that can go a long way in helping you to tackle workplace stress, including:

  • offering stress-management workshops which all staff are invited to and which focus on coping with stress at work. This will help ensure your affected employee doesn't feel like they are being singled out
  • keeping an eye on staff holiday - if certain employees aren't using their full quota, gently remind them that they still have plenty of days left to take
  • ensuring people can relax while on holiday by making sure other people are available to do their work
  • being aware of workloads - spotting and intervening if you notice unreasonable demands being placed on any one employee
  • making sure managers are reminded that 'thank you' goes a long way in making staff feeling appreciated

Longer-term considerations:

Once you've made a start on tackling stress in your workplace, it's worth considering a longer-term wellbeing strategy. It'll take more time and effort to set-up than the shorter-term fixes, but the results should be worth it. Suggestions for a longer-term solution include:

  • Work environment: for example, are there distractions that you can remove, or changes that you can make to seating arrangements?
  • Training: things like job shadowing, refresher training or a more formal course run externally, can all help employees feel more in control of their working lives.
  • Reducing possible pressure: pressure is part and parcel of most jobs at some point, but to make sure it doesn't become a permanent fixture, consider offering flexible working, or working from an office nearer home.
  • 3rd party help: if your company has one, an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) can provide independent, expert help (see Wellbeing section below)
  • Self-help strategies: consider offering short courses on relaxation techniques and time management, or maybe introduce the option of an exercise class once a week. You could also advertise (on noticeboards or your intranet) websites that promote healthy eating, how to achieve a good work/life balance, etc.

The boss blues

We've all come across a cross-section of managers and a range of management styles in our careers. Some may be uncaring, inflexible or unsure. Others are nurturing, empathic and supportive. Either way, management style, good or bad, has a direct effect on staff wellbeing and morale.

Training newly-appointed managers in man-management techniques can be one way to equip someone stepping into the role. Key management behaviours to consider include:

  • Being responsible and showing respect - managers can understandably get annoyed with their staff, but it's up to them to manage their emotions and conduct all interactions in a considered manner.
  • Managing and communicating workloads - let your staff know what's coming up so they can better manage their workloads. It's also good to take an open problem solving approach with employees - that collaborative approach will help empower employees.
  • Treating people like individuals within the team - this includes having an open-door policy (we know it's easier said than done when you've got a lot on, but it really will help). Also, where you can, try to empathise with employees and offer flexibility in hours, workload, or location to help employees manage their individual work/life balance.
  • Offer support with managing difficult situations: managing conflict is harder for some people than others. Where you see difficult situations arising, offer support and, if needs be, take responsibility for resolving the issue.

Acas' Guidance: managing people has a number of practical suggestions

Why workplace wellbeing is important

Employers who match their benefits to the needs of their workforce - both currently and with an eye to the future - are likely to place themselves head and shoulders above the opposition.


Paying attention to staff wellbeing can bring positive results.

As well as the possibilities to change working practices, management style and communications, some workplace employee benefits can also have a positive effect on both staff and businesses.

But, if you do offer any employee perks, don't forget to tell staff about them.

It sounds obvious, but failing to communicate about the benefits on offer can reduce engagement and take-up, meaning all the time, hard work and money you've put in to offering benefits is going to waste.

Where can I find out more?

For employees:

Mind have a great section on their website that talks all about stress and how to manage it. Employers and employee alike can also use their five ways to wellbeing to underpin any wellbeing strategy.

For employers:

Our On Course stress awareness workshop for our existing customers shows how to recognise the signs of stress and reduce key triggers - a vital skill in today’s workplace – and is developed in partnership with Affinity Health at Work. You can also view our online stress e-module.

For those employers who aren’t Unum policyholders, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has a useful section on its website on how to tackle workplace stress, including a risk assessment template and methods you can employ to combat its effect at work. 

Or, to help prepare your line managers for recognising and dealing with stress in the workplace, try the Line Manager Competency Tool.


Please note Unum cannot be held responsible for the content of third-party websites.

1. http://www.hse.gov.uk/statistics/causdis/stress.pdf
2. Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development's (CIPD) 2020 health and wellbeing report
3. Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development's (CIPD) 2020 health and wellbeing report
4. .Capita Employee Insight Report 2016-17
5. https://www.hse.gov.uk/stress/causes.htm
6 https://www.cipd.co.uk/Images/line-management-behaviour-and-stress-at-work_2009-line-managers-framework_tcm18-10442.pdf

(These behavioural competencies or themes are the result of a four year research project funded by HSE, CIPD and IIP and carried out by a team of Occupational Psychologists from Goldsmiths and Affinity Health at Work.