What can I do about workplace stress

Talking about stress to staff

If I do find out stress is, or could be, a problem, what can I do about it?

There's no single best way of tackling work-related stress. What you do will depend on your working practices and the causes of the problem. But only providing training or help (or both) for affected staff won't be enough - it won't tackle the source of the problem! The guide Management Competency Framework: Workplace Stress shows some of the pressures at work that might be relevant, along with some suggestions on how to deal with them.

Remember to:

  • involve your staff and their OHS representatives – they are certain to have good ideas you could use
  • follow up any changes you make to ensure that they're having the effect you intended
  • review what you've done when you make major changes in your workplace (such as organisational change, new equipment, work systems or processes) to make sure that stress hasn't increased
  • lead by example – as a manager, you can communicate powerful signals about the importance of managing stress and determine whether staff are willing to discuss or disclose issues leading to stress (before it becomes a critical issue).

But why would staff want to tell me about their stress?

You're right. Staff may be reluctant to admit they are feeling stressed by work. This is because being stressed can be seen as a sign of weakness. You can help by making it easier for your staff to discuss stress. Reassure them that the information they give you will be treated in confidence. Try to avoid judgemental language and constantly referring to stress. In discussions, use examples of observed behaviours, performance and output: do not use personal judgements of behaviours or possible motivations.

One of the things people can fear the most is the perception of personal criticism or implied personal failure. In exploring stress with an individual you should use non judgemental language, be objective not subjective and remember to approach that matter in a way that deals with the behaviour not the personality.

It is also essential that you use the principles of good communication – establish a rapport, actively listen, ask open ended exploratory questions and paraphrase to ensure understanding.

What can I do to prevent stress from becoming a problem?

Most of the 'things to do' boil down to good supportive management. They're ongoing processes that need to be built into the way your unit is run.

  • Show that you take stress seriously, and be understanding towards people who admit to being under too much pressure. Avoid being judgemental or seeking explanations in personality "flaws".
  • Encourage your managers to have an open and understanding attitude to what people say to them about the pressures of their work, and to look for signs of stress in their staff.
  • Ensure that staff have the skills, training and resources they need, so that they know what to do, are confident that they can do it and receive credit for it.
  • If possible, provide some scope for varying working conditions and flexibility, and for people to influence the way their jobs are done. This will increase their interest and sense of ownership.
  • Ensure that people are treated fairly and consistently and that poor or inappropriate behaviours (not just bullying and harassment) aren't tolerated.
  • Ensure good two-way communication, especially at times of change. Don't be afraid to listen and be honest about your own feelings. However do not "dump" your stress or anxiety on the staff member.
  • Understand and be sensitive to the ebb and flow of the workplace in terms of staff movements, workload changes and fluctuating external demands. Plan for these fluctuations in advance.
  • Be approachable and available for your staff, and address issues clearly, honestly, in a timely manner and in an objective manner.

Ask yourself whether you do these things. If you don't, or are unsure whether you do, take a look at the suggestions on 'what management can do' in the guide Management Competency Framework: Workplace Stress

Managing with stressed staff

First, listen to them! If the stress is work-related:

  • try to address the source(s);
  • involve the staff member in decisions;
  • if necessary, encourage them to seek further help through their doctor oe (should be 'or') Employee Assistance Program (EAP)
  • if you are a senior manager and not the person's line manager, ensure that the line manager treats the staff member with understanding and maintains confidentiality.

Where you can't control the work-related sources of stress, it may be appropriate to move the staff member if you can. If a period of sick leave is recommended, keep in touch with the staff member and their doctor. This should be done personally if practical. However be sensitive where the staff member actually wants to be left alone. Remember that they may be able to return to work to do part of their job, work reduced hours or do a different job, before they are ready to return to their old one. Try to be flexible!

Don't be tempted to think that moving or having someone leave provides an easy way out! If you don't act reasonably, they could claim unfair dismissal or take related action. Before deciding on your course of action affecting an individual or group, think about the implications for the individual or group. For example will it put others under excessive stress, will the action isolate the individual or even be discriminatory.

As a manager it is you role to decide on the best action to meet the situation. Training is great if time management strategies are needed, increased supervisory assistance works well if the person is feeling out of their depth, counselling may help if there are a lot of personal problems – finding the best match between the underlying cause and the actions available is essential. At this stage you may want to seek assistance from your Client Partner. You may also want to discuss your situation with Health, Wellbeing and Safety or the Equity and Diversity Unit.

Finally, bear in mind that if one of your staff members is suffering from work related stress, they may represent the tip of an iceberg. Find out whether others are also experiencing stress at work.

Stress management training

Stress management training comes in various forms. It usually teaches people to cope better with the pressures they may come across. Because it focuses on the individual, it tends not to tackle the causes of stress at work. In most cases simply providing training will not resolve major or entrenched problems. However, it can be useful as part of a 'bigger plan' to tackle work-related stress. Stress management training can be organised with your Client Partner or Health, Wellbeing and Safety.

Employee Assistance Program

The counselling service provides counsellors to whom individuals can talk privately about their problems. The Employee Assistance Program (EAP) can provide or access various services (eg counselling, performance management, financial advice, legal assistance).

Keep in mind that these services must protect the confidentiality of the individual, so any information they can give you may not help you tackle the causes of stress at work. On the other hand, like training, they can be useful as part of a 'bigger plan' to tackle work-related stress.

Manager coaching, training and other specific assistance

If you are responsible for managing staff there are a range of programs you can access. You can also seek operational and policy advice from your Client Partner. You can also discuss coaching assistance or similar arrangements.

In the longer term you can also improve your management skills through Staff Development programs. These programs can assist in a range of areas from carry out a PPR to improving your personal effectiveness. The programs are delivered in a variety of ways including on-line.

Do I need external consultants to help me deal with this? 

In most cases, complex and expensive risk management procedures aren't necessary to tackle stress. Ordinary good management and regard for people may well be as effective as a high profile approach. But if you're worried that stress is a major problem and you can't deal with it internally, you could think about getting strategic assistance from Human Resources through your Client Partner or Health, Wellbeing and Safety.

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