Stress in the Workplace

It is well recognised that stress at work is a huge problem in today’s world. Any stress can reduce employee well-being and excessive or sustained work pressure can lead to stress. Occupational stress poses a risk to most organisations and compensation payments for stress are increasing. It is important to meet the challenge by dealing with excessive and long-term causes of stress from both the Employer and the individual staff perspective.

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) annual absence management surveys show that stress is one of the most important reasons behind long-term sickness absence from work and stress-related absence is increasing. Many organisations are currently facing pressure to cut costs; downsizing employee numbers, increasing workloads, and doing more with less. Managers are often the ones who have to drive and deliver the changes that are unpopular. One of the hardest challenges is to respond well to the human consequences of such activity and Managers can feel they are carrying that particular burden alone, even if the wider organisation is trying to effectively manage the changes.

Pressure and stress 

There is sometimes confusion between the terms pressure and stress. It is healthy and essential that people experience challenges within their lives that cause levels of pressure and, up to a certain point, an increase in pressure can improve performance and the quality of life. However, if pressure becomes excessive, it loses its beneficial effect and becomes harmful and destructive to health.
Stress is the adverse reaction that people have to excessive pressure or other types of demand placed on them. It arises when they worry that they cannot cope. The pressures of working life can lead to stress if they are excessive or long-term. Causes of stress include excessive workload, inadequate training, a lack of control or autonomy and poor working relationships, for example a bullying line manager.

The first signs that indicate that employees might be suffering from excessive pressure or stress are changes in behaviour or performance. The manifestations in behaviour or performance may be quite varied: in work performance it could be things like uncharacteristic errors, lapses in memory or indecision. In terms of behaviour, it could be a resigned attitude or conversely being more prone to “blowing up”, difficulty in relaxing with colleagues or turning up late to work.

The organisation perspective 

The CIPD identifies a number of approaches that progressive employers could take to proactively reduce workplace stress:

  • Undertaking a stress audit and subsequently directing resources to reduce or eliminate the sources of stress
  • People management skills development for managers at all levels
  • The development of a supportive work ethos to encourage staff to discuss stress and seek support when experiencing stress.

When sources of stress cannot be eliminated, other interventions may be considered, such as:

  • Stress management and training in relaxation techniques
  • Promoting healthy behaviour and exercise
  • Personal counselling schemes

While many organisations have developed stress policies, others have found that a well-being policy is much more effective in  maximising the well-being of their employees rather than merely reducing their level of stress. This approach is in line with that taken by the World Health Organisation. Whether organisations choose a ‘well-being’ or a ‘stress’ policy the elements that should be contained in the policy are very similar.

The policy should:

  • Begin with a clear statement which shows that the organisation is committed to developing a working environment that promotes the health and well-being of the organisation and its employees
  • Be supported by senior management
  • Be kept under constant review together with other policies, procedures and initiatives to ensure that they maximise employee well-being
  • Provide for identification of and a regular review of the key well-being indicators
  • Ensure the provision of effective advice, support, counselling and training to enhance employee well-being
  • Incorporate the process for evaluating the effectiveness of all well-being initiatives.

The individual perspective

There is such a lot written about time management and prioritising, that to add to that pile of received wisdom isn’t necessarily wise (although I have written a little!).There is also the really important question within an organisation  around how much can you influence the way that you personally work (or your team works) if the pressures are institutionalised and bigger than individuals, who may be fighting against a whole system. Its worth having a look at the 7 steps to facilitating change article here, especially the “Doughnut” model to reflect on what you can influence and what is outside your control.

However, even if this is the case, there are invariably things that individuals can do to mitigate their personal circumstances, even if the wider context is chaotic…

Be prepared to make drastic changes. Be creative to find and introduce different ways of doing things. If you need a starting point, think about the “pareto principle” of “80 percent of output is produced by 20 percent of input”:

  • Manage your emails and phone calls – don’t let them manage you. Ideally check at planned times, and avoid continuous notification of incoming emails.
  • The more senior you are the more selective you need to be about when to be available to receive phone calls.
  • Try to minimise the time that you are available to take unplanned phone calls, unless you are in a customer-facing, reactive role (customers can be internal too), and even if you are customer-facing, you must plan some time-slots when you are not available, or you’ll never get anything important and pro-active done.
  • Challenge your own tendency to say ‘yes’ without scrutinising the request – start asking and probing what’s involved – find out what the real expectations and needs are.
  • Really think about how you currently spend your time. If you don’t know, keep a time log for a few days: Knowing exactly what’s wrong is the first step to improving it.
  • Challenge anything that could be wasting time and effort, particularly habitual tasks, meetings and reports where responsibility is inherited or handed down from above. Don’t be a slave to a daft process or system.
  • Review your activities in terms of your own personal short-term and long-term life and career goals, and prioritise your activities accordingly.
  • Plan preparation and creative thinking time in your diary for the long-term jobs, because they need it. The short-term urgent tasks will always use up all your time unless you plan to spend it otherwise.
  • Use a diary, and an activity planner to schedule when to do things, and time-slots for things you know will need doing or responding to.
  • Re-condition the expectations of others as to your availability and their claim on your time – use an activity planner to help you justify why you and not others should be prioritising your activities and time.
  • Manage your environment as a whole – especially at the proposed or actual introduction of new systems, tools, technology, people, or processes, which might threaten to generate new demands on your time. If you accept changes without question – particularly new technology that helps others but not you – then you will open the way for new increasing demands on your time, or new interruptions, or new tasks and obligations. Instead consider new technology and other changes from the point of view of your time and efficiency. Ask yourself – is this going to save my time or add to my burden? Managing your environment – which includes managing, redefining, or reconditioning the expectations of others – is a critical aspect of effective time management.
  • You must plan time slots for unplanned activities – you may not know exactly what you’ll need to do, but if you plan the time to do it, then other important things will not get pushed out of the way when the demand arises.
  • When you’re faced with a pile of things to do, go through them quickly and make a list of what needs doing and when. After this handle each piece of paper only once; always easier said than done!
  • Do not start lots of jobs at the same time – even if you can handle different tasks at the same time it’s not the most efficient way of dealing with them, so don’t kid yourself that this sort of multi-tasking is good – it’s not.

Be firm and diplomatic in dealing with time allocated for meetings, paperwork, telephone, and visitors, etc. When you keep your time log you will see how much time is wasted. Take control. Provided you explain why you are managing your time in this way, people will generally understand and respect you for it.

  • Keep a clean desk and well-organised systems, but don’t be obsessive about it.
  • Delegate as much as possible to others.
  • You don’t need to be a manager to delegate. Just asking nicely is sometimes all that’s required to turn one of your difficult tasks into an easy one for somebody else better able to do it.
  • If you can’t stop interruptions when you need a quiet space for planned concentration time-slots, then find somewhere else in the building to work, and if necessary work and at home or another site, and fight for the right to do this – it’s important for you and the organisation that you be able to work uninterrupted when you need to.
  • Set up an acceptable template for the regular weekly or monthly reports you write, so you only need to slot in the updated figures and narrative, each time.
  • Sharpen up your decision-making.
  • Always probe deadlines to establish the true situation – people asking you to do things will often say ‘now’ when ‘later today’ would be perfectly acceptable. Appeal to the other person’s own sense of time management: it’s impossible for anyone to do a good job without the opportunity to plan and prioritise.
  • Break big tasks down into stages and plan time-slots for them. Use project management techniques.


The starting point for effective prevention of stress is good people management. CIPD believes that people work more effectively within a participative management style and people are better motivated when work satisfies economic, social and psychological needs. Employers who pay attention to work organisation and equip managers at all levels with people management skills will support employee engage.

Where this isn’t the case, its perhaps even more important to hang on to some personal principles around how you manage your time at work, and review them frequently, if you are working in a team or organisation where holding on to these is crucial in spite of the place, not because of it.

It might also be worth undertaking a simple stress audit to identify the sources of work stress.