Helping your staff to deal with stress

Staff members who have managerial or supervisory responsibility for other staff need to take account of stress issues in the workplace. This is for three main reasons. First, there is a general duty of care which employing organisations have towards their staff, and so managers and supervisors need to make sure that this duty of care involves preventing staff suffering from harmful stress. Second, organisations have responsibilities under health and safety legislation to protect their staff from undue hazards, and this includes stress. Managers and supervisors therefore need to include stress in any health and safety risk assessment that they undertake, and should also be aware of issues relating to stress in general in order to prevent any unnecessary harm from arising. The third reason is that stressed staff are likely to be less effective, less efficient, more prone to errors, more prone to tension and conflict with other staff, more likely to be absent through ill-health, and will generally contribute to a less than healthy and happy work environment. Stress is therefore clearly a significant problem that needs to be addressed. You therefore need to be aware of not only the costs of stress, but also the warning signs that give an indication that stress is a problem and the steps that you can take in order to:

• develop and promote a stress-free work environment in general;

• respond positively and supportively when any signs of stress should become apparent;

• support people appropriately when they are under stress; and

• carefully develop and implement a plan for helping staff members return to work after they have been absent on sick leave as a result of stress.

All these require at least a basic understanding of stress and staff care, and all need to be handled carefully, sensitively and constructively. This can be a significant challenge for managers and supervisors (especially if they are under considerable pressure themselves), but it can also be a very rewarding aspect of the job, and certainly well worth the investment of time and effort. The warning signs fall into three main categories, thinking, feeling and doing:

• Thinking: Thought processes can be hampered by stress – inability to sustain concentration, difficulty in thinking clearly and forgetfulness are not uncommon.

• Feeling: There can be a wide range of emotions generated by stress: sadness and depression; anxiety; irritability; anger and frustration; and so on.

• Doing: People’s behaviour can be significantly affected by stress. For example, appetite can be affected, as can sleeping patterns, sociability and various other aspects of our day-to-day behaviour. One thing to watch out for in particular is distinctive changes. For example, being withdrawn is not necessarily a sign of stress, but it may well be so if the person concerned is normally quite extravert. Similarly, someone who is usually very calm, but who becomes agitated may be showing signs of stress.

In addition to these three categories, there may also be physical symptoms, such as headaches, stomach pains and so on. In addition, existing illnesses (such as asthma) can be exacerbated by stress. However, we should be careful not to make the mistake of assuming that stress is an illness. Stress is a complex psychological, social and organisational phenomenon and we must be careful not to oversimplify it by confusing it with an illness.

Dr Neil Thompson                             

Neil’s website and blog are at

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