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Stress at work


  1. Introduction
  2. What is work-related stress?
  3. What causes stress?
  4. Stress from doing the job
  5. Stress from work relationships
  6. Stress from working conditions
  7. What are the signs of stress?
  8. What laws apply
  9. How are the risks arising from stress assessed?
  10. Why is all this important?

1. Introduction

This document discusses stress caused by factors in the work environment. While factors outside the workplace can contribute to a person's overall stress condition, this fact sheet focuses mainly on stress in relation to the workplace.

Stress can affect everyone so this fact sheet is relevant to employees, employers, managers, supervisors, the self-employed, apprentices and trainees.

Bullying in the workplace is one cause of occupational stress but is not covered in great detail.  The WorkSafe Guidance note Dealing with workplace bullying: A guide for workers provides guidance in this area.

Workplace violence is also a cause of occupational stress.  The WorkSafe Western Australia Commission has produced a Code of Practice on Violence, aggression and bullying at work which provides practical guidance for workplaces where people may be exposed to deliberate and intended physical assault, verbal abuse, threats, intimidation, harassment and bullying. This code explains the responsibilities of employers and employees and suggests strategies for reducing the risk, responding to incidents and recovery.

There are equal opportunity laws which are designed to protect persons in the workplace from harassment by supervisors or colleagues. Harassment may be intentional or result from a lack of awareness of various cultural, religious or other factors affecting an individual or group. Action against harassers can be taken where bullying activity is based on sex or ethnicity, and when harassment continues or intensifies after a complaint is lodged.

  Stress in the workplace can affect everyone at one time or another. 

2.  What is work-related stress?

Work-related stress is the natural reaction of people to being put under intense pressure at work over a period of time. Many people are motivated by the challenges and difficulties that normally occur with work demands and react by improving performance. Meeting those challenges and overcoming the difficulties causes feelings of relaxation and satisfaction. When the pressure of work demands becomes excessive and prolonged, however, people perceive a threat to their well-being or interests and then experience unpleasant emotions such as fear, anger or anxiety.

The basis of this reaction comes from instinctive "fight or flight" reactions to danger. 

The stress response is designed to be used in short bursts and then switched off. If it is activated for too long, or the period between stressful situations is too short, then the body has no time to repair itself, and fatigue and damage occurs. The stress hormones then literally begin to destroy the body so, over time, this affects physical and mental health and quality of life in just the same way as exposure to industrial toxins.

Stress is not a disease or injury but it can lead to mental and physical ill health. 

3.  What causes stress?

It is reasonable to assume that people in the workplace are fit to cope with the pressure from normal work demands.

The reactions of individuals will vary according to the nature of the pressures and the extent to which the person is directly or indirectly involved. What may be seen as a challenge by one person may be an impossible task or boring and repetitious to another.

A person's background, motivation, experience, skills and knowledge on the one hand and the support and encouragement from managers, supervisors and colleagues on the other, all play an important role.

While it may be beyond the employer's or supervisor's responsibility or expertise to overcome, it is necessary to take into consideration that people will come to work with various character traits and in various moods.

Problems outside of work can also contribute to stress, eg. relationship problems and financial pressures. Non-work problems can make it difficult for people to cope with the pressures of work, and their performance at work may suffer. A death or sickness in the family, a temporary setback or other personal problems may exacerbate the situation and influence the way people cope with work pressures.

Difficult job requirements affect everyone differently. A challenging event for one person can be highly stressful to another.

The causes of stress (often called stressors) can be many and varied, and can occur as a result of combinations of more than one stressor. Most stressors can be grouped into one of three areas. For each group of stressors are suggestions for managers and supervisors to consider when dealing with those triggers.

4. Stress from doing the job

Stress from doing the job can be caused by:

  • boring or repetitive work, or too little to do;
  • too much to do, too little time;
  • to little/too much training or support for the job;
  • confusion over, or too much, responsibility for managing others;
  • confusion over priorities, timeframes and standards; or
  • sub-standard performance resulting in disciplinary action such as dismissal, retrenchment, demotion, discipline, transfer or redeployment; a worker not being promoted, reclassified, transferred or granted leave of absence or any other benefit in relation to employment or a workers' expectations of any of these matters or of the employer's decision in relation to these matters;

. . . and what to do about it:

  • change the way jobs are done, consult with individuals before moving them to comparable work, give individuals more responsibility, increase job scope, vary job tasks, give workers responsibility for group performance;
  • try to give warning of urgent or important tasks, prioritise tasks, remove unnecessary work;
  • match individuals to jobs, increase the scope of jobs for the over-trained;
  • ensure everyone has clearly defined and achievable objectives and responsibilities linked to organisational objectives;
  • provide supervisor training and support;
  • ensure disciplinary procedures are developed and are a transparent process. These procedures should be applied by trained and authorised officers able to communicate effectively with employees;
  • give staff the knowledge and skills to enable them to manage their own stress response;
  • ensure staff and supervisors receive the skills, training and resources they need to work purposefully, confidently and are appreciated; and
  • ensure that policies and procedures are clearly stated and uniformly applied.

Stress may arise from sub-standard performance resulting in disciplinary action but an employee is eligible for workers' compensation if the action by the employer can be demonstrated to be unreasonable and harsh. Stress issues will need to be dealt with appropriately as part of good management practices.

5. Stress from work relationships

Stress from work relationships can be caused by: 

  • poor relationships with colleagues;
  • bullying or harassment;
  • discrimination;
  • lack of communication or consultation between manager and employee;
  • negative culture based on blame for and denial of problems; or
  • misguided practical jokes or initiation ceremonies;

. . . and what to do about it:

  • provide training in interpersonal skills;
  • establish and review policies, grievance procedures and investigation of complaints;
  • provide opportunities for employees to contribute ideas and to be consulted;
  • management should encourage feedback from employees and act on it;
  • encourage management lead by example with honesty, respect and support;
  • ensure people are treated fairly and consistently with an intolerance of harassment and bullying; and
  • provide opportunities for social interaction among workers to help build a sense of community in the workplace.

Bullying is an abuse of power that can operate at all levels in a workplace. It includes any unfavourable treatment, such as aggression, passive non-cooperation, ignoring the person or their work, refusing to renew a contract of employment, or dismissal. It can also include threats and intimidation, or an escalation of existing unfavourable treatment, if a person complains about the bullying behaviour. Employers and supervisors could consider timely transfer or withdrawal from the workplace of the bully, or the "shared concern" approach in which both the victim and bully express their experiences and then agree on acceptable behaviours to be adopted by both.

6. Stress from working conditions

Stress from working conditions can be caused by: 

  • physical danger, or the threat of it;
  • in contact with human suffering and people's reactions to it;
  • single incident such as armed robbery or a workplace fatality;
  • poor physical working conditions;
  • inflexible work schedules or unpredictable hours; or
  • organisational change, such as restructuring;

. . . and what to do about it:

  • provide adequate control measures against physical pressures, in particular, clear support and training for those faced with violent situations;
  • consultation with staff over restructuring plans;
  • encourage managers to have an open and understanding attitude towards those who admit to being under too much pressure, especially if employees are fearful of losing their jobs;
  • establish open and non-judgemental communication free from the fear of retribution between management and employees;
  • provide scope for flexible and variable working conditions over which people have some control, to increase interest and ownership of the job, and assist people to meet their family responsibilities;
  • encourage consultation and cooperation between employers, employees and their representatives, especially during periods of organisational change; or
  • evaluate the effectiveness of changes put in place and review the situation from time to time.

Organisational change, or the threat of change, needs to be managed to ensure employees and stakeholders are consulted and informed as much as possible well before the change occurs and during the change process.  Understanding the likely impact on them can help individuals cope with any natural fear they may have of change and dismiss unnecessary fear that arises from a lack of information.

There are also some general strategies relevant to most organisations that may help:

  • encourage employers to take stress seriously and make themselves aware of the warning signs of people under too much pressure;
  • consider and assess possible stressors in the workplace through consultation with employees on what they think will reduce the stressors in the workplace;
  • encourage staff to talk about the pressures they perceive in their jobs;
  • be understanding of stressors outside the workplace, but only seek information you need to know;
  • propose and prioritise intervention strategies and inform employees;
  • encourage employers to provide a consistent management approach; and
  • encourage a non-judgemental attitude in the workplace whereby employees feel comfortable to seek professional help to aid in resolving problems.

Larger employers may have the resources to provide stress management training, a confidential employee assistance program or use risk management consultants as tools to assist with stress problems in their organisation. These tools may be useful as part of a wider plan to tackle organisational issues but they are not always effective in identifying the source of a stress problem. Smaller employers may need to consider more affordable options.

7. What are the signs of stress?

Personal signs of stress include:

  • immediate body changes that may be associated with distress, such as changes in heart rate and breathing rate, muscle tension, nausea or vomiting;
  • feelings of anger, protest or frustration;
  • feelings of anxiety or being out of control;
  • feelings of guilt or embarrassment;
  • irritability and loss of concentration, poor memory, learning difficulties; or
  • prolonged sleeplessness and disturbing dreams.

Outward signs of stress in individuals that could be noticeable to colleagues and managers include:

  • deteriorating relationships with colleagues;
  • irritability, indecisiveness, absenteeism, reduced performance;
  • demand for more precise instructions;
  • increased smoking or alcohol consumption, or drug taking;
  • complaining about ill-health; or
  • actual ill-health such as frequent headaches, gastro-intestinal disturbance, ongoing minor illnesses, skin rashes, deteriorating immune response.

Signs of stress across an organisation that represent a business cost include:

  • high staff turnover, increased absenteeism, reduced work performance, poor timekeeping and more customer complaints;
  • stress appearing in those people who cover for the stressed colleague who is absent from work;
    increased rate of workplace accidents;
  • compensation claims from people whose unchecked stress results in ill-health;
  • reduction in output, product quality, service or morale;
  • increased wages/overtime payments;
  • deterioration of industrial relations; or
  • organisational sabotage.

The effects of stress indicated above could each be signs of a range of other health problems. The diagnosis of severe stress generally requires a trained professional.

Stressors cover a large range of symptoms: from poor performance, boredom and deteriorating relationships to aggressive and threatening behaviour, or single shocking incidents. 

8. What laws apply?

Stress becomes an occupational hazard if it adversely impacts on safety and health in the workplace.

Often a number of factors from the workplace and home combine to increase stress to the point where a person may put their own or another person's safety at risk. As a result, both employers and employees have a special duty of care role to play in making sure risks that are caused by stress from all sources are minimised and staff are fit for work.

Employers have a duty to provide a workplace where, so far as practicable, employees are protected from hazards in their workplace. This includes providing safe systems of work, information, instruction, training and supervision. There is also a requirement for employers to consult and cooperate with safety and health representatives and other employees.

Employees must take reasonable care for their own safety and health and avoid adversely affecting the safety and health of others in the workplace. They must also cooperate with employers in safety and health matters so that employers can act responsibly.

The Occupational Safety and Health Regulations 1996 require employers, where practicable, to adopt a systematic approach to identifying, assessing and controlling hazards at work. Employers should identify factors in the workplace that cause stress (a number of which are have already been listed). They should then assess the likelihood of stress causing injury or disease. If the risks are significant, they should put in place controls to minimise them.

Employers have a duty to provide safe systems of work, information, training and supervision and to consult and cooperate with employees. Employees have a duty to take reasonable care of themselves in the workplace and to cooperate with the employer on safety and health matters. 

9.  How are the risks arising from stress assessed?

It is difficult to objectively measure the level of stress in the workplace. For example, there are no simple tests to measure how much pressure a person can work with, before the stress adversely affects their health and safety.  There are consultants who can measure the sources of stress and develop appropriate solutions for your workplace, using subjective measures.

The design and appropriate solutions identified from will vary according to the size and complexity of the organisation, available resources and especially the unique types of stress problems faced by the organisation. Minimising stress in the workplace does not have to be costly.

In spite of difficulties in measuring stress, both employers and employees regularly make judgements about levels of stress and the level of associated risk. The absence of objective tests does not remove the need to do a risk assessment nor does it mean that the assessment is invalid.

Responsibility for risk assessment rests with the employer, main contractor, self-employed person or person with control over the workplace or access to it, and involves:

  • identifying pressures at work which could cause high and long-lasting levels of stress;
  • identifying people who might be affected by these pressures;
  • deciding whether preventative action in place is sufficient;
  • taking action to prevent pressure growing to an unacceptable level; and
  • reviewing the success of the control measures.

It is important that there is early intervention if stress is identified. Risk assessment should determine the likelihood of stress resulting in ill-health which will prompt actions to deal with those pressures. For example, a supervisor needs to consider whether an employee has too many competing deadlines before asking that person to do an additional task. The employee needs to clearly understand the pressure they may already be under when deciding whether to refuse the extra work or not.

The risks arising from stress may also vary depending on the task. Some tasks require a higher level of concentration, coordination or strength in order to carry them out safely. As a result, the level of pressure that may be tolerated will vary between industries and occupations.

Mechanisms should be in place to ensure the risk of stress is identified as early as possible, followed by a risk assessment and the introduction of controls appropriate to your workplace. 

Stress management systems should only be developed in organisations in which a need is identified. They should be developed in conjunction with grievance procedures to cover both preventative strategies and the provision of help.

Otherwise, the application of good management practices that include appropriate organisation of work, a healthy corporate attitude, successfully managed change and an appropriate management style will all contribute towards reducing unwanted stress levels in the workplace.

10. Why is all this important?

Work organisations need to develop a workplace culture that recognises that job satisfaction factors such as flexibility, autonomy, security, recognition, ownership, participation and involvement are as essential as stable industrial relations. Employers in such organisations should have no doubt that health, safety, security and morale are inextricably linked to employee satisfaction, productivity and customer satisfaction.

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