No matter who you are, you’ve probably experienced a time in your life when you have felt stressed. Students at the Open University often find themselves balancing a life of work deadlines, TMA submissions, and family commitments as standard, before adding the other strains that everyday life can throw at you such as a bereavement, money concerns, marriage and starting a family. When faced with too much, it’s no surprise that we can start feeling overwhelmed. Our individual lives are hugely varied, but something that almost everyone has in common is the need to work. This article focuses on stress in the workplace including ways to identify stress, what an employer is legally obliged to do to help keep their staff healthy and happy, and what employees can do if this isn’t happening.
Symptoms of stress
Stress can hit people suddenly or increase gradually over time. We all experience stress differently so here are a few common signs:
- Feeling irritable, aggressive, impatient or wound up
- Having problems sleeping or having nightmares
- Unable to concentrate and finding it hard to make decisions
- Smoking or drinking alcohol more than usual
- Feeling sick, dizzy or getting headaches
If left alone, stress has been proven to have an adverse effect on health. Its physical effects can include heart disease and back pain whilst also leading to physiological effects such as anxiety and depression.
What should employers do?
Employers should be aware that in 2016, work-related stress, anxiety and depression was responsible for the loss of more than 11.7 million working days at a cost of over £5.2 billion. Aside from the moral and ethical reasons to reduce this, all employers have a legal responsibility under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 and Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 to ensure the health, safety and welfare at work of their employees. This includes minimising the risk of stress-related illness or injury to employees. They can fulfil this obligation by ensuring that they have a robust health and safety policy in place which is understood and followed by managers. Managers should in turn be monitoring and addressing potential sources of stress, conducting risk assessments as well as considering whether stress may be a factor in absenteeism or poor performance.
What should employees do?
- Alert your manager or Human Resources representative as soon as you begin to notice signs of stress or foresee a stressful situation.
- Document meetings and communications where you discuss any issues you’re having which may contribute to the detrimental effects on your mental health.
- Know your rights and legal mechanisms! It is worth noting that every employment contract has an implied duty of trust and confidence. This means that both parties will be honest and respectful to each other and will not destroy that relationship without good reason. This is often cited in employment cases and can be breached in several ways by your employer. Some stress-inducing examples are:
- Not taking issues or grievances seriously
- Unwarranted disciplinary procedures or unfair suspension
- Excessive workloads and imposing detrimental changes to an employee’s work
- Misplaced expectations regarding pay or benefits
- Causing psychiatric injury to an employee
Finally, do look out for stress and other mental health problems in colleagues and friends. Even happy events such as a wedding or expecting a child can cause people to feel immense pressure. Speaking openly and patiently with someone can help them identify when they’re stressed and what their triggers are. You may be able to help them address some the causes of stress or assist in seeking professional support.
If you would like to speak to someone, London Nightline is a listening and information service run by students for students open from 6pm to 8am every night of term. You can talk to them about anything, big or small, knowing that you are doing so anonymously and confidentially.
How can you get in touch with them?
Phone: 0207 631 0101
Text: 07717 989 900
Skype Chat: nightline.chat
Skype Phone: londonnightline
 http://www.hse.gov.uk/statistics/causdis/stress, accessed 20th October 2017
https://www.mind.org.uk, accessed 18th October 2017
http://www.hse.gov.uk/stress/index.htm, accessed 20th October 2017
https://www.oustudents.com/_uploads/ousa.poweredbygravit-e.co.uk/OUstudents_mag_Autumn17.pdf, accessed 18th October 2017