What is workplace stress

What is stress?

Stress is the mind and body's reaction to change. It isn't a disease. But if stress is intense and goes on for some time, it can lead to mental and physical ill health (such as depression, nervous breakdown, heart disease).

Stress can be a good thing, can't it?

Being under pressure or challenged often improves performance. It can be a good thing. But when demands and pressures become excessive, they lead to distress. And it's clear from the recognised symptoms of distress that it's actually bad for you.

What are the most important potential work stressors?

Studies carried out by the United Kingdom Health and Safety Executive have shown that the following are the most important potential factors that can affect stress:

Demands         such as workload, work patterns and the work environment. This includes the amount of stimulation and challenge staff get from their jobs
Control such as how much say the person has in the way they do their work. This includes perceived fairness of treatment with regards to treatment, evaluations and rewards
Support such as the encouragement, development and resources provided by the organisation, line management and colleagues. This includes the perceived quality of communication and staff input
Relationships

such as promoting positive working relationships to avoid conflict and dealing effectively with unacceptable behaviour. In particular

Teamwork: Effective communication and cooperation in the work unit

Supervision: Quality of guidance and support provided by supervisors

Role such as whether people understand their role within the organisation and whether the organisation ensures that they do not have conflicting roles.
Change such as how organisational change (large or small) is managed and communicated in the organisation.

Satisfaction with pay and benefits(support) is the weakest predictor of stress once a level has been reached.

Responsibility as a manager

It's your duty at law to make sure that your staff are not made ill by their work. Excessive or prolonged stress can make your staff ill. Action to reduce stress can be very cost-effective. The costs of stress to your area may show up as high staff turnover, an increase in sickness absence, reduced work performance, poor timekeeping and more client complaints. Stress in one person can also lead to stress in staff that have to work with the person or even cover for their colleague.

Employers who don't take stress seriously may leave themselves open to compensation claims from staff who have suffered ill health from work related stress. Fortunately, reducing stress need not cost you a lot of money.

Isn't stress also caused by problems outside work? Are you saying I have to do something about that?

You're not under a legal duty to prevent ill health caused by stress due to problems outside work, e.g. financial or domestic worries. But non-work problems can make it difficult for people to cope with the pressures of work, and their performance at work might suffer. So being understanding to staff in this position would be in your interests.

Under health and safety law, what must I do about stress?

Where stress caused or made worse by work could lead to ill health, you must identify the stress-related hazards, assess the risk of them causing injury and put into place appropriate control measures.

Isn't stress also caused by problems outside work? Are you saying I have to do something about that?

You're not under a legal duty to prevent ill health caused by stress due to problems outside work, e.g. financial or domestic worries. But non-work problems can make it difficult for people to cope with the pressures of work, and their performance at work might suffer. So being understanding to staff in this position would be in your interests.

Are some people more likely to suffer from stress than others?

We are all vulnerable to stress, depending on the pressure we are under at any given time: even people who are usually very resilient. As a manager, you're responsible for making sure that work doesn't make your staff ill. If you notice that someone is particularly vulnerable because of their circumstances, look at how their work is organised. See if there are ways to relieve the pressures so that they do not become excessive. However, unless you know otherwise, you could assume that all your staff are mentally capable of withstanding reasonable pressure from work.

What about staff with mental health issues?

Under law, the University is liable when work aggravates an (existing) illness including mental health conditions. If you have built a strong relationship with your staff, they are more likely to discuss their condition with you before this occurs. The University is also required to offer reasonable accommodation where staff have disabilities that may affect their work.

Further information can be found on the Equity and Diversity Unit website.

What about managers and their stress?

Stress can potentially affect everyone in the workplace including you, your managers and your manager. Particularly at risk are the middle managers and supervisors who often feel like the "meat in the sandwich" with pressure from above and large expectations from below.

If you are a manager with managers reporting to you, you have the same responsibility to them as to all other staff. The information in this document is equally applicable to your management of your managers. Your managers look to you to set the standard and provide leadership in developing the workplace culture. If you want supportive managers, you will have to provide them the support in terms of assistance, feedback and guidance.

If you personally are suffering excessive stress, you have the same rights to access the support and resources found in this document. The Employee Assistance Program is completely confidential and can be accessed directly. If you are highly stressed it is likely that this is being transmitted to your staff and it is unlikely that you are being effective as a supportive manager.

Although good management technique and leadership skills are "natural" to some, for most it is a learned skill. One of your responsibilities is your own development and you need to spend time on this. The University recognises that responsibility for professional development lies jointly with the individual staff member and the University through devolved accountability to line managers, although it is also recognised that specialist areas within the University provide a variety of professional development services. Deakin's development framework includes key staff capabilities grouped into three core development areas of:

  • Leadership and Management
  • Interpersonal/Personal
  • Academic/Technical/Specialist

There are a number of Staff Development programs that can help you become a better manager - use them.


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