What is Work-Related Stress?

This guide to stress at work explores what work-related stress actually is, what causes it, how to spot the signs, and how to cope. Learn more

In this article:

  • What is work-related stress?
  • Signs of stress at work
  • Causes of work-related stress
  • Dealing with stress at work
  • How to manage employee stress levels
  • Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999

What is work-related stress?

Stress will always be present in the workplace, and it can be a good thing for productivity and creativity, but there’s a fine line between a healthy amount of stress and too much of it. When employees become too stressed, it not only takes a toll on them personally, but on the overall health of the company. To make sure you have a happy, healthy, and engaged workforce, stress management is a must.

With the amount of time we spend at work, it is hardly surprising that stress can creep into that environment. Work-related stress is defined as a harmful reaction that people can have to undue pressures and demands placed on them at work.

It definitely isn’t a rare occurrence either, as 2017 saw over half a million workers suffer from work-related stress, depression or anxiety. This figure equates to 12.5 million working days being lost as a result.

Signs of Stress at Work

Behavioural changes don’t automatically mean stress, but any changes need to be noted and examined so you can work out the cause. The earlier you can spot stress, the easier it is to control the situation. Signs to look out for in an employee can be spotted by looking at their actions and behaviour, as well as their interaction with others. This could be apparent in arguments, mood swings, tiredness, unhealthy eating habits, a poor level of punctuality, and generally failing to keep up with the working days and expectations.

Sleeping difficulties

Stress can cause people to struggle when it comes to sleeping because it requires them to switch off. With nothing to distract them, it allows their thoughts to take over, which is when anxiety and worries can get worse.

Failing to get a good night’s sleep then causes more stress because you wake up with an energy deficiency that could mean your work level decreases, making you stress more because you’re struggling to meet deadlines. It really is a never-ending vicious cycle.

Lack of punctuality

Timekeeping becomes an issue when stress takes its toll. This is because the individual takes on too many tasks, allowing things to get on top of them. As a result, you can quickly find yourself feeling overwhelmed.

Lack of presence

If you’re stressed, you tend to miss work more than you would normally. This is because individuals may be trying to avoid a difficult situation or may find themselves in a rut they can’t get out of, such as using alcohol as a coping mechanism.


People tend to isolate themselves if they are feeling stressed. The individual’s self-esteem and confidence may have taken a hit, and for this reason they don’t feel capable of coping with social situations. Their confidence is feeling fragile, and as a result they avoid anything that might push this.


Looking after ourselves is something that a lot of people neglect. There will be times when work pushes us to our limits, causing stress, and in order to do this healthily you need to balance it out with periods of rest so that your mind and body can recover. Failure to do this can lead to burnout and chronic fatigue, and a state of constant stress.

Addictive/Excessive Behaviour

If you are suffering from stress, you often don’t realise it. This inability to recognise stress, or having no idea how to deal with it can lead people to look to short term solutions. Although this can have a temporary fix, it tends to have a damaging impact in the long term.

One of the most common coping mechanisms is alcohol. Alcohol can produce a temporary benefit for the individual, but it can also be highly addictive and fails to resolve any problems – instead just making you feel better in the short term.

Unhealthy eating

Comfort food is a term thrown around all too often and is usually turned to as a solution for stressful situations. Convenience food can make you feel better in the moment, but the high levels of sugars, salts and fats mean that it does your body no good, and can lead to further mental health problems too.

Comparatively, some people avoid eating altogether when they’re stressed. They might be experiencing a suppressed appetite, developing a negative association with food, or be low in body confidence. Whatever the reaction, the consequences of avoiding food can be just as devastating as indulging in it excessively.

Risk taking behaviour

Individuals may be experiencing a low sense of self-worth or a lack of excitement, which can lead to them feeling the need for a ‘buzz’. However, this ‘buzz’ may only be achieved through dangerous actions.

Gambling is strong symptom of stress as people could turn to the excitement of a potential win as a way of channelling their stress. As the slogan suggests though, “When the fun stops, stop” – the gambling can soon lose its thrill, and you’re left with a damaged bank account and a sore head.


Stress can cause people to lose concentration at times, and when this is lost, accidents happen. In certain workplaces, usually manual industries, it can result in accidents that can sometimes have fatal results.

Along with reduced concentration, the individual could be overworked, poorly trained, or displaying risk-taking behaviour; all of these factors can be contributory factors in stress.

High turnover in the workplace

Stressed employees tend to be unhappy in their work situation, and due to failing to have a point of contact in the workplace, they simply look elsewhere for work. Having employees constantly come and go is a tell-tale sign that you’re running a stressed workforce.

Causes of Work-Related Stress

There are certain factors that can lead to work-related stress, factors that managers should look out for in order to stop things ever getting out of control. It is their responsibility to keep a team working to the best of their abilities, all whilst keeping stress at a healthy level.

Things that can cause stress in the workplace include:


This includes issues such as your team workload, their work patterns and the working environment. Ridiculous workloads with unrealistic deadlines can make people feel rushed, under pressure and overwhelmed, and can often lead to a quality of work that is below average.


The level of control you give your team when it comes to the way they do their work. If you’re forcing someone to do something in a way they struggle with by failing to give them any control, this can cause them stress.


The encouragement and links within a working team are essential. Promoting a positive working environment avoids conflict and deals with unacceptable behaviour.


Make sure your team knows what their role is within the organisation to ensure they have clarity in their position. This prevents them from being stretched too thin due to conflicting roles.


Some people find change extremely difficult, so if it is to occur, make sure you manage and implement the changes in the most positive way, keeping your team in the loop at all times and listening to any queries they have.

Dealing with stress at work

Stress can be avoided by taking pre-emptive measures. Learning to recognize the triggers that affect us and dealing with those situations as soon as they occur helps us to retain control over our health and well-being before problems can escalate.

Here are some coping strategies to try for dealing with stress:

Don’t put off any issues causing anxiety

Dealing with issues as they occur helps to avoid stress. This could be a tough piece of work, an argument with a friend, or an unpleasant meeting. Whatever it is – putting it off only makes matters worse.

Prioritise important matters

Prioritizing important matters avoids other people becoming demanding and constantly on our case. Leaving things until the last minute is stressful for everyone involved.

Treat challenges as opportunities

Enjoy finding solutions to problems and treat it as an interesting opportunity to learn and problem-solve. Stressed people often worry about making mistakes and getting things wrong. Treating challenges as opportunities to learn from can turn stressful situations around into positive events.

Take some time off

Taking time out helps to keep stress levels at bay by recharging our batteries, spending time having fun and establishing a good work/life balance. Personal time provides an opportunity to switch off from stressful situations rather than needing to remain constantly on the ball. Allowing yourself time “off” means that when you are at work, you are more efficient and proactive too.

Take good care of your physical health

Taking care of our bodies is important in avoiding stress too. Make sure that when it comes to your diet, everything is in moderation. Be aware of alcohol levels, maintain a good sleeping pattern, and exercise too; these are all ways of investing in our health and well-being.

Try to foster a more positive attitude

Once we start to feel resentful, cornered or overwhelmed, it can become frustrating and debilitating. Sometimes it can help to take a moment and reflect on our position to advocate a more positive attitude.

Take responsibility for your choices

This can help us see the situation as a matter of choices rather than something to stress about, changing our perspective on things, and making us feel better about our position as a result. This realization can help us appreciate what we do have rather than dwelling on what we’re without.

Talk to friends about your problems…

Allow friends to help by talking about your worries, sharing your problems to gain support from those around you. As the saying goes – a problem shared is a problem halved!

…but make sure that’s not all you talk about with them

Make sure your friends are associated with your relaxation time and not just conversations around your issues. If you fail to differentiate these times, then these relationships become an extension of the problem and everything is based on stress.

How to Manage Employee Stress Levels

There are several steps you can take as a manager to help keep your employees’ stress levels at a low level, so they can perform their job to the best of their ability and have a positive work life balance.

Address any known issues

If you know that there’s something that’s creating stress, find a way to fix it. This is easier said than done, but also a piece of advice that cannot be ignored. If you don’t do what you can to give your employees a healthy, low-stress work environment, you’re going to suffer from low productivity in the long-term.

Training programs

Training is a strategic place to start, and it also helps you and your organisation prioritise stress management as an ongoing initiative. One off training is not the answer, but it is definitely a good start.

Wellness programs and initiatives

Wellness programs benefit the business in many ways, one of these benefits being that it can reduce stress in the workplace. These campaigns can focus on the potential causes of stress and teach people how to deal with them effectively. This could include working to deadlines or traffic congestion – both of which workers come into contact with as part of their working day. Exercise can also help reduce stress, highlighting how companies can use health initiatives to combat the problem (this isn’t to say a morning 5k is going to be everyone’s cup of tea though!).

Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999

The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 (MHSWR) was introduced to replace a number of other previous regulations in place, brought in to supplement and extend the earlier legislation in place. It moves the focus over to the duties of the employers and their employees, stressing the importance of risk assessments to create a safer workplace for everyone.

It requires the Employer to…

1. Assess the risks to health and safety for their employees and others who may be affected by their work.
2. Make appropriate arrangements in managing health and safety. Employers of 5 or more workers should record these arrangements in their written risk assessment.

3. Undertake any necessary health surveillance regarding the employees when it has been noted by the risk assessment.

4. Appoint competent employees to assist in the above measures.

5. Establish procedures to be followed by employees if situations ever arise that could present serious or imminent danger.

6. Provide relevant information on health and safety in an understandable guide.

7. Ensure employees are given adequate health and safety training.

It requires the Employees to…

1. Report any shortcomings in health and safety arrangements, including dangerous situations.

2. Use equipment in accordance with training and instruction they have been given.

3. Take reasonable care of their own health and safety and those around them that may be affected by their actions.

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