What is work-related stress?

Project deadlines, juggling different demands and dealing with the unexpected – there can be all kinds of pressures around us at work.

A reasonable level of pressure, what’s often called ‘good stress’, can help us to feel motivated and perform well when working to tight deadlines or in challenging situations like giving a work presentation, for example.

The word ‘stress’ is most commonly used to mean the overwhelming feeling of anxietywe experience when problems or pressures are just too great and we start to struggle.

This Stress curve shows how some stress can help us work at our best but also what happens when we start to feel overwhelmed by too many demands.

It’s also helpful to watch our animation of the ‘stress bucket’ – it’s a visual way of looking at stress and what happens when pressures get too much.

Work-related stress is thought to be the second biggest occupational health problem in the UK, after musculoskeletal disorders such as back problems.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) defines work-related stress as ‘the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them at work’.

The HSE has developed The Management Standards which describe the main causes of work-related stress that someone at work might experience and how they can be effectively managed within an organisation. You can explore these causes in this download:

Levels of stress or burnout can be higher with certain ways of working or in certain kinds of workplaces where some of the following issues may be experienced:

  • pressures are particularly high and unrelenting
  • there’s a risk to personal safety
  • people experience trauma or upsetting experiences
  • staff have a high level of responsibility for other people’s health, safety or wellbeing
  • people work long hours and there’s a lack of work-life balance
  • employees don’t feel supported at work and don’t know who to talk to or approach for help
  • people work alone or in temporary roles and don’t have the support of a regular team
  • staff work across different buildings/sites
  • there’s a lack of job security and benefits like sickness and holiday pay.sStaff work on zero hours contracts
  • the organisational structure and processes do not support effective working
  • organisational policies are applied inconsistently
  • the prevailing culture is competitive, aggressive, hostile or lacks empathy
  • staff feel under constant attack from unhappy or angry customers
  • people experience bullying or harassment and feel belittled, humiliated or alienated
  • inappropriate behaviour becomes acceptable or even the norm and isn’t challenged

Industries that have struggled with higher levels of stress include the building and construction industry, banking and finance, the law, the emergency services, healthcare, social care, education, the police, the prison service, teaching, front-line telephone/customer services, call centres, digital/tech services, the creative industries and agencies providing client services. However, organisations in all industries need to work proactively to create mentally healthy workplaces.

The HSE has produced a Talking toolkit to help you have conversations about stress in the workplace.

The cost of living crisis and work-related stress

The cost of living crisis is having an effect on employee stress levels in many ways. Some people may be working in sectors that are currently unstable, like hospitality, and may fear losing their jobs. Others might be struggling financially, juggling working from home with childcare or worrying about the health of family members. The situation will be different for everyone, so it’s important to have open conversations about stress with staff. Our debt and money worries section has lots of links to support staff wellbeing during this challenging time.

Your legal responsibilities

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 duty includes assessing and taking measures to control risks from work-related stress.

Employers also have a duty under common law to take reasonable care to ensure the health and safety of their employees. You can find out more about an employer’s responsibilities at work on the HSE website.

You can get more guidance from:

  • ACAS helpline – 0300 123 1100 – call for free impartial and confidential guidance about any kind of query about relationship issues within the workplace. You might find your answer on their Helpline Online database, full of frequentlly asked questions and answers.
  • Mind Legal Line – 0300 466 6463 – provides legal information and general advice on mental health-related law.

Consider your workplace culture

If people are experiencing work-related stress or burnout in your organisation it’s important to consider whether your workplace culture is supporting staff wellbeing.

We’ve developed a resource, together with Mindful Employer Leeds, which can guide you as a local employer, whether big or small, through all the different steps. Take a look at our resource here: What can we do to improve employee wellbeing?

If you’re working in an organisation which is particularly complex, widespread or where staff work under high levels of stress it can help to look at creative ways of engaging staff. What ways of communicating would work best for your particular workforce? If staff are remote but have mobile phones would a text message or email work best for them, for example? If they are tech savvy could you create an app, ask staff to join into a webinar or communicate through instant messaging channels? If staff don’t have access to digital devices would a hard copy newsletter, messages printed on wage slips or team briefings work better?

It’s also important to always keep a two-way dialogue open and give staff the opportunity to voice their wellbeing needs and make suggestions which could lead to positive improvements.

Put support in place

If you’re concerned that someone at work might be experiencing stress or struggling to cope Worried about a team member? can give you guidance in having a conversation and putting support in place.