Knowledge November is the month in the year where we focus in more depth on a topic.  This year we are considering stress and the workplace and issues such as:
  • What is stress?
  • What the employer’s duties are.
  • What the legislation and case law tells us.
  • Things the employer can do.
In this week one we’ll be introducing the topic and considering what stress is.

Introduction to Knowledge November 2019

Stress is now the biggest cause of working days lost in contrast to previous times when musculoskeletal issues ranked higher, reflecting the changing nature of the work that we do.  The Treasury estimates that the cost to UK PLC is £5.2bn but that figure will not account for lost productivity when people are in work but are suffering from the effects of stress that are diminishing their output/presenteeism.  I have seen surveys talk about as much as 57% of lost working days being caused by stress.  The HSE suggest work-related stress, depression and anxiety account for 44% of work-related illnesses and the average number of days lost per case is 25.8 days.
Google, IBM and most recently a large law firm Dentons in London (no relation) appointed mindfulness chiefs – If the largest employers are recognising that they need to do something like this, what is that telling us?
During the 1990s, when I first commenced working, the emphasis when discussing stress was on individuals ‘not coping’.  During the 2000s it changed to talking about organisational responsibility for employees and what they should be doing to tackle stress. For example, this is when the HSE Management Standards which we will be talking about, came into being. Another decade down the line from that point, we are in a position where excessive workplace pressure is now considered ‘normal’.  This has come about as a result of a number of changes:
  • Austerity and everyone being asked to do more for less.
  • Modern technology and ways of working and the ubiquity of mobile technology/email: we never get to switch off.
  • A constantly changing world and expectations are higher than ever: if anyone has the temerity to speak out, and say that they are suffering, we blame the individual and watch them crash into chronic illness or alcohol and drug dependency. 
  • Short term contracts and instability.
On 28 May 2019, the World Health Organisation announced that it would be recognising “burn out” as a chronic condition on its International Classification of Diseases list from 2020.  It classifies burn out as a “syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”.  It lists three characteristics:
  • Feeling of energy depletion or exhaustion;
  • Increased mental distance from one’s job or feelings of negativity or cynicism relating to one’s job; and 
  • Reduced professional efficacy. 
I made a joke about this at the time, wondering how many of us could look at this list and identify as being ‘burnt out’?  I certainly meet lots of people who I would say fall in this category, often when they are raising grievances with or exiting their employment with a settlement agreement. Essentially stress has become normalised as ‘what is to be expected’ in many jobs, inevitable and something we all just have to put up with.

If we take ourselves to the HSE Management Standards (which we’ll look at in more detail later), they isolate generic factors that are present in any job.  The six factors are:
  • The control you have in the job
  • Demands of the job which is really about workload
  • Relationships in the workplace which is largely about their manager
  • Management support which is around having the right encouragement and resources provided by the organisation, line management and colleagues.
  • The role and whether people understand their role and whether or not they are being put in a position of conflict by being asked to do conflicting things.
When you look at those items, most are things that are largely controlled by the employer. Thus all employers, large or small, irrespective of what they do, must acknowledge that they have this control and that they have a massive influence over the stress levels of their employees, which in turn affects performance and health outcomes. It is not good enough to focus on stress as just something the employee is responsible for. We need to get back to a position where employers are taking responsibility for the effects of the job on the individual, designing jobs that aren’t going to make people ill.

Managers are particularly vulnerable  – surveys are finding that those trapped in the middle are being squeezed between the demands of senior leaders and those that they are managing.
4 November 2019 sees the start of International Stress Awareness week and in the UK, 6 November 2019 is National Stress Awareness Day; this year I want you to not only be aware of the issue but to take some action to address stress in your workplace. Tell us one thing you are going to do to make a difference.

What symptoms might I see if someone is stressed?

You can view Anna’s video here

The European Framework Agreement describes stress as a “state, which accompanied by physical, psychological or social complaints or disfunctions results from individuals feeling unable to bridge a gap with the requirements or expectations placed on them”. 
Fit for Work have some stress related materials on their website which talk about the longer term symptoms of stress – they talk about some of the physical and behavioural effects, like a change in appetite, feeling tired or fatigued, being susceptible to common illnesses and bugs like colds and flu, change in sleep patterns, nervous behaviour such as nail-biting, fiddling and increased dependence on alcohol, cigarettes etc. They talk about the mental and emotional effects, like feeling overwhelmed and out of control, difficulty making decisions, mood changes, such as impatience, irrationality and irritability and worrying and feeling anxious.  

I was at an event recently, and one of the ladies speaking had been really high up in a particular sport in an international role.  She had recently left all that and set up her own business. She described knowing it was time for her to admit that she was burnt out and couldn’t do her job anymore when she became unable to make decisions.
Chronic fatigue in the early stages make somebody feel a lack of energy and feel tired most days.  They might describe feeling as tired when they get up as when they went to bed. They might be suffering from insomnia, forgetfulness and impaired concentration and attention as well as having physical symptoms.  You might notice these symptoms?

Last year I worked with somebody who was experiencing really high blood pressure. Effectively his body was waving a white flag at him because of the stress he was under at work.  

Someone might be suffering from a loss of appetite, a loss of interest in normal things like family and friends, chronic impatience and irritability, as well as anxiety or depression and reduced professional efficacy.  This is where we get into burn out territory.  This is why the HSE refer to stress as “an adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them”.  
So, what might the causes of undue pressure be in the workplace?  I am sure you will all be able to come up with your own list of things.  My top seven list would involve the following:
  • Long working hours
  • Over-stretching targets
  • Lack of time to recharge
  • Bursts of activity replaced by longer activity
  • Poor communication
  • Conflict
  • Bullying and harassment
I also see all the time how it can occur when changes happen, eg. a new manager comes in with different expectations and places different demands on an employee.  
Are we making it worse?  I have already touched on a number of things which might be making the situation worse, expecting everyone to be the same, long working hours culture, lack of flexibility, continual change in the workplace, increased job sizes, never-ending email pressure, unrealistic deadlines, volume of phone calls, demanding customers. You may add your own items to the list?

The Wellbeing Index consider a third of people feel under pressure to stay late, eating their lunch at their desks, with 39% arriving early and 29% taking work home and 25% skipping lunch altogether – that doesn’t sound like a recipe for health does it?
So what do we do?  Our attitude needs to change.  The problem is always going to be there, in the sense that the things that make the job stressful aren’t going to go away.  There will always be an awkward customer or demands to do more with less.  What we have to do is stop treating people as a problem that we get rid of at the first sign of any weakness and acknowledge our human nature and focus instead on how we work with individuals looking after them, to see them through periods of less than optimum health when it comes to stress, supporting them and retaining their services for the future. The employers who are going to be the successful organisations in the future will be the ones who get this.

Next week:

In the second week of Knowledge November we are focussing on what the employer’s duties are.  If you have any specific questions please email


Special offer (throughout November and December):

Stress and Wellbeing Template Policy

Give yourself a starting point to develop your own policy – Normally £300 + VAT.
Special offer for November and December 2019 – £199 + VAT.

To take advantage of this offer please to email