Stress Toolkit

Chris Wagstaff
blog-publish-date 09 May 2024

The HSE states that over 11 million days are lost a year because of stress, with stress making up around 37% of all work-related ill-health cases.

Some of the main factors contributing to workload pressure include:

  • Lack of managerial support
  • Tight deadlines
  • Too many responsibilities
  • Role uncertainty
  • Workplace violence

Almost all of the above factors of stress in the workplace can be identified, and consequently prevented, by carrying out a risk assessment. For immediate advice, speak to one of our experts on 0800 470 2708.

Someone experiencing workplace stress

Do we have to carry out a stress risk assessment?

Yes, employers are required to manage stress at work in the same way as other health and safety risks, and the first step is a risk assessment. This will identify the nature and extent of the risk and employers are required to put in place preventative strategies to address those risks in a reasonable, practicable way. It could be that there is little or no risk of workplace stress, but you need to check regularly. There are general indicators such as levels of sickness absence, patterns of absence, long-term absences, relationships amongst employees, and feedback from them.

What is the best way to carry out a risk assessment?

There is no single method of risk assessment. You may decide to issue employees, or representatives from each category of employee, with a questionnaire. The questions will relate to the person’s role, workload, resources, and how their work is arranged in terms of targets and deadlines. The questionnaire can also seek views on the working environment and facilities, relationships, support arrangements, and on the perception of the employer’s general attitude to health and safety matters. Another method is to set up a focus group to discuss these issues confidentially. As with all risk assessments, the significant findings need to be recorded (in writing if there are more than 5 employees) and monitored and reviewed as necessary. See more information on HSE’s Stress site

Someone experienceing workplace stressCarrying out a stress risk assessment

How can I tackle stress, anxiety & depression in the workplace? 

Tackling stress, anxiety and depression is tough, especially when you fail to recognise the signs. Still, the issue remains vitally important all year round, at all levels of employment. Here are our ten top tips for recognising and tackling poor mental health. 

Develop a stress management policy

Make sure you have clear, robust policies which outline your company’s commitment to assisting with these issues. The aim of the policies should be to set out the actions that your company will take and who will maintain responsibility for this.

Understand the causes

Workplace stress, anxiety and depression can have several causes, including unrealistic workloads, working overly long hours, poor communication from management, job uncertainty and isolation from colleagues. Personal issues may also be affecting an individual’s wellbeing, such as relationship issues, a recent illness or bereavement or a major life change.

Identify the signs

Although symptoms will differ from person to person you need to be vigilant for the common signs. These include:

  • Becoming withdrawn or isolated
  • Work standards decreasing
  • Frequent sickness absences
  • Poor timekeeping
  • Becoming short-tempered or irritable
  • Suffering from persistent headaches, nausea, tiredness or palpitations

Meet with the employee

Take care not to assume what is affecting the employee until you have had a chance to speak to them. All conversations you have should be approached in a calm, supportive and positive manner and the meeting should take place in quiet and private surroundings.

Consider additional workplace support

Work with the employee to explore areas in their daily working life that are causing their condition, or making it worse. In many cases, small alterations to working arrangements, such as changing working hours or making additional allowances for time off for appointments, can help to ease pressures affecting the employee.

Provide additional support through an Employee Assistance Programme

Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs) can offer additional support to your employees. They operate by offering confidential assistance and advice through various mediums, including the phone, online and face-to-face.

Know how to manage related absences

Employees in this situation may take time off work to either address their wellbeing or deal with the situation that is causing the stress. You should arrange to speak to them regularly to get updates on their situation, avoid placing any pressure on them to return to work, consider whether a phased return would assist them and be prepared to examine adjustments to their working environment.

Know how to properly support the employee on their return to work

On their first day back, you should hold a return-to-work meeting to reaffirm the ongoing support they will receive. You should also provide them with an update on any key company developments they may have missed and make sure they are aware that they can come to you if they experience any ongoing issues.

Make sure employees are aware of the support available to them

It is no use having procedures and policies in place to assist employees in these situations if they are not aware of the help they can receive. Encourage them to be familiar with all policies, to provide constructive feedback on existing processes and to attend any courses you offer such as a stress management course.

Promote a positive work/life balance

It may appear beneficial if an employee is regularly working longer hours, or taking on increased workloads, but the opposite is true. This can be one of the primary causes of stress and anxiety and you should take steps to ensure employees are getting the appropriate holidays and rest breaks they are entitled to. You can also consider additional support that you can offer workers, such as allowing for flexible hours and home working.

Wellbeing in your workplace

Find out how you can promote a positive working environment and support your staff with Croner. Whether you want to implement new policies or take advantage of an EAP, we can help. Call one of our expert HR consultants today on 0800 470 2708.

EAP in the workplace

Employer’s responsibility towards staff off work with stress

Before you worry about your employee handing in a sick note for stress, think of what can cause this.

They might experience difficulties in their personal life. Or they can go through work-related strain that negatively impacts their mental health. In this case, it falls within your responsibility to assess the risks and improve their work environment.

Employers have a duty of care towards the well-being of their staff. But many people struggle to discuss work-related stress and anxiety. Whether they fear losing their job or being considered poor performers, we’ve seen employees reluctant to approach their managers with such issues.

To prevent mental health difficulties from escalating, ask these questions:

  • How can you better help your employees in dealing with workplace challenges and resulting strains?
  • How can you better support their recovery when they have been signed off with stress?

Avoid the temptation to think such mental health issues will not affect your workforce. Data identifies almost 18 million workdays lost to stress, anxiety, or depression in the year previous to the pandemic. This makes double the number of workdays lost to musculoskeletal disorders in the same period.

Give your employees the option to seek help when they need it, through an employee assistance programme (EAP). Such programmes counsel workers on any mental health difficulties they might experience, whether personal or work-related.  

Before you decide to refer your staff, approach them with caution to discuss. You cannot force them to take this course of action.

If your organisation doesn’t already have an employee well-being programme, we can help. Our EAP call centre offers free 24/7 counselling, critical incident advice and telephone support.

After an employee gets signed off work with anxiety or stress

When dealing with a doctor’s note for stress and anxiety, you need to understand and assess the situation well.  

If your staff member is going through personal difficulties, follow the advice we’ve given above. Show them you care about their well-being and want to support them.

If work-related aspects affect their mental health, don’t wait for the situation to escalate. We recommend following this three-step approach:

  1. Treat the issue like a sickness absence. By downgrading the problem, you risk upsetting the individual and making the situation worse.
  2. If the employee experiences damaging levels of stress at work, assess what is causing this. Identify which factors and aspects need improving, agree on a plan and act on it.
  3. If the employee becomes so stressed they feel they can no longer be part of the company, they can pursue constructive dismissal.
    In such a case, it’s in your interest to pinpoint contributing factors and resolve them.

Ideally, you should aim to prevent getting to the third stage of this process. The main goal of understanding work-related stress is to support and retain staff.

Start by inviting them to a meeting either before they take time off work, or after. Ask them how you can help accommodate them moving forward.

Don’t hold such a meeting only to tick a box. Turn this into a real opportunity to improve the work environment, your systems, and ways of working. It will potentially benefit everybody on the long run.

Causes and symptoms of workplace stress

More often than not, we’ve seen staff take stress sick leave in the UK when they struggle with:

  • An excessive workload or not taking breaks
  • Poor relationships with colleagues
  • Poor relationships with managers
  • The working environment—a toxic company culture

It is never too late to address such issues, even if the effort to improve feels overwhelming. At the end of the day, a happy, healthy workforce will engage better, increasing productivity and contributing towards business growth.

While employers can’t act as trained therapists, unless qualified to do so, they can recognise signs of stress, such as:

  • Insomnia
  • Fatigue
  • Apathy
  • Irritability or outbursts of anger
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Low mood
  • Excessive intake of caffeine or alcohol
  • Low productivity
  • Regular absences or lateness
  • High sickness rate
  • Cynicism and defensiveness
  • Headaches
  • Backaches
  • Indigestion
  • Weight loss or gain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Regular or lingering cold

You can approach and discuss these symptoms in a return to work interview. Encourage the individual to open up about any work-related aspects that might be causing them. If these symptoms have persisted for a while, advise them to seek support for stress-related mental health issues. The sooner they receive the help they need, the better their prospects of recovery.

a lady getting anxious in the workplace

Employee Rights in work-related Stress and Anxiety

When signed off from work with stress in the UK, employees keep the same entitlement to sick pay. This means treating mental health difficulties the same way you would any physical illness.

Also, when requesting time off work for anxiety or stress in the UK, the employee might ask for compensation. UK law allows them to claim for personal injury due to work-related stress in case it causes other health issues.

If the employee can prove their stress resulted from harassment or discrimination, they might even pursue a tribunal claim.  For them to pursue a claim, they’ll want to receive a diagnosis from a medical professional.

In the case of long periods of absence, you may request a formal meeting to discuss their return to work. If the employee refuses to meet or misses multiple appointments, you can begin to consider a capability dismissal.

Suffering from stress doesn’t count as a disability in the UK. However, this very common mental health issue can trigger conditions considered a disability. Every employer should take all the necessary steps to avoid such an outcome.

The way you treat your staff who experience high levels of stress will make all the difference. Supporting them in dealing with their difficulties will give them the best incentive to keep working for you.

Getting signed off work with stress – employee FAQ

We have seen employees themselves ask us or our EAP counsellors two major questions, and we will answer them below.

  1. “How to get signed off work with stress and anxiety?”

Firstly, employees need to come forward and discuss their situation with their GP and their employer too. Their manager might feel that their hands are tied, as they cannot support somebody who doesn’t ask for help. However, they can create and promote a company culture based on openness and trust. This will prove key to staff approaching them before their situation worsens.

The decision to provide a doctor’s note for stress and anxiety stays with the GP or occupational health practitioner. What happens next will depend a lot on how both employee and employer work together to resolve the issue.

  1. “Can work contact me when off sick with stress?”

When dealing with such difficulties, the fear of coming across as a bad employee can overwhelm the person. As it’s a delicate situation, it requires good communication, trust, and a good balance to achieve a positive outcome.

They are signed off work with stress so they can recover. It means that any avoidable triggers should be removed. However, the absence of communication in itself can constitute a trigger.

This is where a counsellor will help find the best way to maintain contact with the employee. If they are absent for extended periods of time, their manager might need to update them about changes within the business.

Dealing with work-related stress doesn’t look pleasant, but it looks unavoidable at some point in everybody’s history. Managing the situation in a proactive, solution-orientated manner can make all the difference.  

Someone experiencing workplace stress

Speak to an expert 

Tackling stress and anxiety in the workplace can have an impact on both your employees and your mental health, wellbeing, and productivity and lead to more serious mental health conditions. Take a look at our free stress toolkit, which includes: 

  • Guidance on conducting a stress risk assessment 
  • A free mental health policy 
  • An infographic on how to spot and tackle stress when it occurs.

Alternatively, you can speak to one of our health & safety experts, who can walk you through putting together your mental health policy, and help you to improve the mental wellbeing of your employees. Talk to one of the team on 0800 470 2708.


About the Author

Chris is the Director of Health and Safety at Croner. Chris is also CMIOSH accredited, an IOSH Mentor and HSE People Champion and has over 20 years working in Health & Safety.