Managers role in workplace stress risk management


In Australia, the work of Cotton and Hart distinguishes operational demands and the context in which work is conducted, and recognises that contextual factors (such as leadership and managerial practices, climate and culture) strongly influence how employees cope with and manage their operational demands. Cotton and Hart have found that contextual factors tend to exert a stronger influence on staff wellbeing outcomes when directly compared with a wide range of operational stress risk factors. In particular, their research shows that 'supportive leadership' and a high quality 'work team climate' strongly influence individual morale, which buffers staff against the impact of work-related stress risk factors. (ComCare: Working Well - An organisational approach to preventing psychological injury, a guide for corporate, HR and OHS managers)

Risk management of workplace stress

Workplace stress is a health and safety issue and comes under the OHS Act. This means the University through its managers and supervisors, is required to prevent and address workplace stress using a risk management framework. In applying a risk management framework it is important to appreciate that both organisational and individual level interventions to address the causes of psychological injury are generally more effective than approaches that solely focus on the staff member.

Preventing and managing stress 

Staff member-focussed approaches such as counselling, relaxation training, time management skills and stress management training can assist staff to develop greater resilience to work-related stress or help them better deal with personal stressors. Stress management programs teach workers about the nature and sources of stress, the effects of stress on health, and personal skills to reduce stress. This training may rapidly reduce stress symptoms such as anxiety and sleep disturbances; it also has the advantage of being inexpensive and easy to implement. However these approaches do little to address the organisational sources of work-related stress. As such they are less likely to produce sustainable prevention outcomes, address the root causes of stress or result in improvements in organisational performance.

Organisational Stress Management focuses improve working conditions or climate. This approach is the most direct way to reduce stress at work. It involves the identification of stressful aspects of work and the design of strategies to reduce or eliminate the identified stressors. The advantage of this approach is that it deals directly with the root causes of stress at work and produces the best results. However, managers are sometimes uncomfortable with this approach because it can involve changes in work routines or production schedules, or changes in the organisational structure. Approaches developed within a framework for continuous improvement, rather than with an expectation of dramatic and uniformly positive impact, are also recommended.

Prevention of workplace stress

The expectation under the OHS Act is that managers will do everything practicable to prevent injury through workplace stress.

This should occur when a new process or job is introduced. As well as considering the physical hazards such as manual handling or ergonomics, the psychological hazards should be considered.

Work demands are the easiest to identify. Work demand risk factors such as pace of work and work variety are more easily recognised compared to more esoteric support risk factors such as respect and management culture. It may be similarly difficult to see how drivers such as difficult clients are offset positively or negatively by support from managers and other team members.

Nevertheless experienced, competent managers will have an understanding of the work climate interacts with the organisation of the work.

The recommended preventative approach to risk management of stress involves four steps:

  1. Identifying the sources of potential harm to staff health and wellbeing
  2. Systematically assessing the risk of staff being harmed
  3. Developing and implementing actions to:
    • address the workplace factors that present a risk of psychological injury
    • minimise the impact of stress on staff through supportive management and promoting staff health and wellbeing
  4. Monitor and review the implementation and effectiveness of the interventions to ensure continuous improvement.

For more information on workplace stressors see risk factors for workplace stress. The job stress identification checklist (DOCX, 30.2 KB) can be used to evaluate the stress associated with a job.

Preventing and Managing Stress

When to act

Faced with an awkward or difficult dilemma at work line managers react in various ways. If you are a line manager do you:

Option 1: AVOID the situation?      A common response that can work if you have decided it is not time to intervene - problems do sometimes go away or resolve themselves. But do keep an eye on things.
Option 2: HESITATE? Sometimes managers want to say something but lose their nerve and end up sending out coded messages in the form of jokes or quips which make things worse. For example, a flippant 'The part-timer is back' to a regular absentee.
Option 3: CONFRONT the issue? It's good to face up to a problem but try to avoid a knee-jerk reaction. Focus on the issues involved rather than reacting to the personalities.
Option 4: FORCE matters to a head?     A manager might decide 'enough is enough' but be careful – issuing edicts and threatening sanctions can leave you with little room to manoeuvre.
Option 5: DISCUSS the issues fully and frankly?     Talking about problems in an open but honest way can be the hardest route to take but is often the most productive. You may have to use your disciplinary procedure to resolve a problem, but you may also be able to reach a consensus about the best way forward.

There are a number of reasons why managers may fail to deal adequately with staff who experience work-related stress. These include:

  • inadequate awareness of the issues
  • reluctance to concede that their management styles may be associated with ill health or stress in their employees
  • different staff may respond differently to the same working environment and management style. This may lead managers to conclude that a problem is the individual's – rather than accepting the need to acknowledge and respond to differences in their staff
  • managers may be reluctant to be educated in this area if they do not consider health and safety to be part of their responsibilities
  • managers may be concerned that raising stress with staff may create an issue where none existed
  • managers may be reluctant to 'intrude' into a worker's private life, although stresses arising outside of work can spill-over into the workplace.

Managers may find it useful to get training or coaching in communication skills, in having difficult conversation or in basic mediation to manage conflict.

How do I recognise stress in individuals?

Many of the outward signs of stress in individuals will frequently be noticeable to managers and colleagues. Look in particular for changes in a person's mood or behaviour, such as deteriorating relationships with colleagues, irritability, indecisiveness, absenteeism or reduced performance. See also Personal Signs of Stress (DOCX, 21.1KB) .

Individual personality will influence how people respond to negative work experiences and work pressures. Some individuals have vulnerabilities or characteristics that contribute to the stress process (such as negative thinking patterns, the perception of being controlled by their circumstances, poor coping skills or past experience of stressors). In addition, there are staff who already have a psychological condition or develop one during their work life. These psychological conditions may be severe or virtually unrecognised, temporary, permanent or periodic.

The most successful interventions give priority to work-related (or organisational) measures that tackle the causes of workplace stress, in combination with worker-directed measures.

Remember to:

  • respect the confidentiality of your staff
  • tell your staff what you plan to do with any information you collect
  • involve them, as much as possible, in subsequent decisions
  • involve OHS representatives, if you have them, in your plans and decisions
  • if you employ five or more staff, record the important findings from your risk assessment, for example by writing them down
  • check from time to time that the situation hasn't changed.

How can managers deal with workplace stress?

The standard OHS risk management methodology of "find, assess and fix" can be applied to workplace stress. The five basic steps are:


The first step is about paying attention to your staff, noticing any changes in their usual behaviour or relationships.

It may be also worthwhile reviewing leave use, both recreation and sick leave as well as over-time or time in lieu.


Listen to what staff are saying: are there more complaints or excuses than unusual?

Has the level of conflict or sensitivity increased? How much impact is the stress having?


Think about what you have observed and how that relates to the factors that typically lead to workplace stress. Focus on the obvious causes but do not ignore the full range of possibilities.

Be honest with yourself: what is my contribution?

If you believe the stress is not work related, how is work aggravating the situation?


If appropriate, discuss the issues with your staff individually and/or as a group.

If you need assistance, talk to your Human Resources Partner first


Put into place a plan to reduce, offset, rebalance, or better manage the stress.

This is preferably done in consultation with staff.

If you practice management competencies outlined in the Manager Competency Framework, you will have already built up the trust and relationships that will allow you to intervene early and effectively deal with workplace stress.

Management actions that can make a difference include:

  • making a simple offer of support and assistance
  • flexibly accommodating reasonable adjustments to help the staff member remain at work.

The local manager plays a pivotal role in demonstrating support to the injured worker.

Tools and resources

Managing Mental Health Matters is a Canadian program focused on helping managers, supervisors and other leaders learn how to effectively recognize and manage mental health related issues including stress in the workplace. The program uses a story-based approach, portraying realistic episodes of workplace "characters" dealing with situations common to everyday work life. The user engages in the process, rather than simply being given information.

Dealing with particular issues

Each situation of stress in the workplace will have unique aspects. Even when a group of staff are facing the same stress risk factors, the best outcomes occur when effort is made to configure solutions to the individual's circumstances.

If it is a group issue should I have a group conversation?

If the stress involves a group of staff, then it is usually a case of mixing and matching: some staff members should be spoken to individually, all staff should be given the option of initiating a discussion with you and the group should be given an opportunity to raise issues as a group.

Return from an extended absence(over two weeks): is there anything I should do differently if the person has been away from work for an extended period?

    Firstly welcome the staff member back, confirm their contribution was missed and provide an update about developments that have occurred in their absence.

    Secondly, as a separate exercise, explore with them their reasons for non-attendance. If you already know that the period off work was due to stress, review with the staff member the factors they believe are responsible for the stress. This may change the focus and content of the conversation but does not remove the necessity to have the conversation with the staff member.

    Advice on managing individual cases If the staff member is away from work

    Do'sDo nots
    Prompt, well thought action is necessary when you believe there is a stress problemDo not delay unless you have concrete reasons to believe the matter will resolve itself
    Use your judgement about the best approach based upon your knowledge of the personDo not hesitate to seek advice from Human Resources Services (HR Partner), but it is your problem to resolve
    Consider whether you are part of the perceived problem. If so, involve a credible third partyDo not use your involvement as an excuse for lack of action
    Start low key, casually and at an informal level but have your facts marshalled. Have specific examples where the person's performance has deteriorated or where it is affecting the performance of othersDo not make a fuss or back the person into a corner. Do not operate on a wing and a prayer.
    If the person's problem is not affecting their performance or that of others be prepared to back off and respect their privacy. Even when the issue is work-related you must be sensitive to privacy issues.Do not use respect for privacy as an excuse for inaction. Offer assistance. If it is refused, leave the offer open whilst continuing to monitor work performance and impact.
    If a discussion starts to get heated or personal, break it off. Get a third party (HR Partner) involved to protect both yours and the other person's integrityDo not get into arguments. If the matter needs to be pushed and the person concerned is not responding well, break off and make arrangements for a more formal meeting
    Do be prepared to act as a sounding board and assist the other person to come to a personally acceptable decision. Facilitate the persons self-development and awarenessDo not act as a judge, confessor or parent. If this is what the person wants, refer them to professional assistance (Employee Assistance Program). Avoid seeming indifferent but do not become emotionally involved
    Do accept that some problems are out of your league. If the matter cannot be resolved locally, identify the best course of action and best forum for its resolutionDo not become involved over your head. Do not hesitate to seek outside professional assistance or seek advice from more senior management or your HR Partner.
    While taking a sincere interest in the personal wellbeing of your staff, remember your prime responsibility as a manager is with the person's performance.Do not become enmeshed in personal disputes, keep to the facts about the person's performance. Do not speculate or jump to conclusions. Do not apply your own personal values or beliefs in evaluating the performance of staff
    Respect confidences and the person's privacy.

    Avoid moral dilemmas, do not say or do anything that will compromise your integrity or that of the University's.

     Do document any decisions or commitments about future performance or behaviour. Show the document to the person concerned and get their agreement. Do follow-up any commitments. Do not leave this more than 1-2 days, as things can change or deteriorate rapidly.

What should I do if the person is away from work?

The normal practice is to keep in contact with staff members that are on unplanned absences. If you believe this is problematical or you have been asked by the person not to contact them, discuss this with your Human Resources Partner.

If possible, you should arrange a face-to-face meeting with staff member at a neutral location preferably, but if necessary at their home. If the meeting is at the staff member's home, try to have a colleague accompany you with the staff member's permission. Try to make the focus of the discussion 'Are you okay?' rather than 'When are you returning to work?' .

Advice on managing individual cases if the staff member is away from work

Do'sDo nots

Follow up personally any absence from work over 3 days. This can be in the form of a phone call:

  • How are you?
  • Is there anything we can do?
  • Do this even though the person may have "rung in"

Do not leave this to others unless there is a concrete reason to do so: the personal touch can be critical.

Do not go overboard especially if there was a poor relationship initially.

If it is a prolonged absence (over 2 weeks) maintain regular contact.

If appropriate arrange a personal visit perhaps with a co-worker. If appropriate arrange flowers, get well card, etc.

Do not forget about the person. Do not start to believe that it is "for the best" that the person is away.

After any prolonged absence (over 1 month) arrange a suitable return to work program.

If the absence involves sickness or injury, consider limited hours and duties. Even if it is a holiday, people take time to get back into the swing of things.

Do not give a returning worker a month's backlog to catch up with in the next week, as well as their normal job.
If the person's absence is welcomed by you or other employees, then you have a major problem. Similarly, if you believe there is no good reason for the absence, do something about it.Do not ignore difficult situations: they inevitably get worse. Do not be reluctant to start the formal disciplinary/warning system if justified

What about cross-campus management and stress?

A particular issue at Deakin is "distance management" where particularly direct line managers are not on the same campus as a portion of their staff. This can lead to two stress issues – staff feeling alienated from their manager (in the worst cases, "us" versus "them"), and the manager not being close enough to the workplace to feel the mood of local staff. This issue can be addressed in a number of ways that are dependent upon the situation:

  • The use of local team leaders or campus representatives.
  • Regular attendance, and more importantly, availability on the campus. Availability means leaving time outside the business schedule to catch up with people and socialise. This needs to be tempered with the stress of constant travel and the associated loss of time involved.
  • The clustering when feasible of functions on a campus to warrant the appointment of a team leader
  • The use of phone and to a lesser effect e-mail to keep in contact. The effectiveness of phone communications is dependant on the quality of the existing relationships. This in turn makes the induction process when these relationships are built critical.
  • Where staff are having problems, then the amount of face-to-face contact needs to increase.
  • Clear job and role expectations and objectives that are well understood by both you as the manager and the staff involved.

What should I do if the relationship with the person is strained?

The relationship between the injured worker and the manager is important. You should seek advice from your Human Resources Partner. Some ways to mend or maintain that relationship may include:

  • scheduling regular conversations to check on the progress of the injured worker and to give them an opportunity to raise any concerns before problems develop further
  • nominating an alternative support or contact
  • flexibly providing alternative duties that will allow a gradual restoration of the relationship
  • using other agreed strategies that are in place to reduce barriers to return to work, such as mediation and other dispute resolution procedures.

The staff member is easily distressed: how can I coach them or talk about work?

There are some general principles that can be used:

  • Start with the person's strengths or successes
  • Be clear about concerns and expectations
  • Offer help
  • Collaborate on goals
  • Follow up
  • Agree on next steps

This is discussed in more detail in Coaching Distressed Staff.

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