How can employers notice and mitigate stress within employees?

In light of International Stress Awareness week, and as outlined in the first article of our mini-series, stress is often caused by situations that occur both inside and outside of work.

However, with 33% of the UK workforce reporting moderate-to-high levels of stress, our second article shares ways in which employers and managers can notice feelings of stress in their employees, and identifies steps that owner/managers can take to offer support and reduce these feelings.

Stress is often unavoidable, and for many, it is likely that a small amount of stress will encourage you to thrive and perhaps feel more energised. But treading the line between healthy levels of stress and unmanageable amounts can be difficult. When does stress become such an issue that it damages your employee’s performance and health?

As an employer/manager, what can I do to support my staff?

1. The first step in supporting, and being able to mitigate the risk of employees experiencing moderate-to-high levels of stress is to be able to identify when they are stressed.

Stress-related symptoms, whether in one’s work or personal life, can be broken down into three main categories: emotional, mental, and behavioural. Some signs an employee may be stressed, include:

  • longer working hours
  • increased irritability
  • appear to be withdrawn
  • change in behaviour/appearance
  • drop in performance

Maybe they cannot complete all their work within their normal working hours, or maybe they are working through their breaks. The key here is consistency. At times most employees are expected to work somewhat longer hours to fulfil their expectations, but is this happening consistently every day?

A sudden change, whether in appearance or with their behaviour, can signal that there has been a shift in stress-levels. Maybe they pay less attention to their general appearance, maybe they don’t have time too. Or, perhaps they appear more quiet than normal, and are not attending team meetings due to workload – this isolated behaviour can be an important sign an employee is stressed.

2. If your employee is showing symptoms of stress, then the next step in supporting them is to be approachable or have an open discussion about how they are feeling.

As a manager/employer, you have a duty of care to your employee’s health and safety, including their mental health. Being approachable, and spreading awareness around your firm that you have the correct procedures in place for a member of staff to approach and confide in you, is vital in creating an open and positive atmosphere.

If you would like to engage with an individual personally, then having an informal and private discussion will likely create an environment where an employee feels more willing to share their thoughts.

Ensure that you allow plenty of time for this discussion, as cutting off a productive conversation can be unhelpful. Additionally, try not to compare their feelings to circumstances that yourself or others have been through, in order to stay focused on them.

Once they have confided their feelings in you, be sure to be realistic and reasonable as to the next steps you can take to support them, as to not over-promise.

How to move forward if the stress is work-related?

Once a person reports experiencing work-related stress, the appropriate course of action should be discussed with them and, where feasible, documented in a well-being action plan so that their progress can be monitored.

To begin outlining a well-being action plan, you could ask yourself:

  • Could the stresses be eliminated or diminished?
  • If not, what kind of assistance may be provided to the person to help them cope?
  • What tools are required or accessible to assist?
  • Are there any HR policies that might be applied in this situation, such as flexible working?
  • What effects may any work modifications have on other people?
  • What more steps or checks are required?
  • Has the problem been impacted by my management techniques? Do you have any suggestions on how I could help my workers in the future?

What workplace procedures can I have in place to support staff through stressful situations?

Employee Assistance Programme (EAP)

Employee Assistance Services/Programmes are designed to be a positive, preventative approach to encourage transparent communication. They include information, advice, training and services to help you deal with events and issues in your everyday work and personal life.

Paid for by the company, a third party business will offer free and confidential advice and support to all members of staff. The benefits of many EAP packages include:

  • 24 hour support
  • confidential advice
  • everyday support including legal, financial and family care information
  • offers unique insights into the psychological well-being of your workforce through anonymised data collection
  • structured counselling sessions
  • stress management support

Some staff may never make use of an EAP, but knowing and being reminded that impartial and confidential support is available in case they ever need to will significantly support employees.

Staff well-being surveys

Asking a variety of questions to gauge several dimensions of well-being, employee well-being surveys have the ability to directly address any concerns and problems that staff are experiencing.

The survey will ask employees to consider their overall physical and mental well-being, and how your business supports them in these areas.

Anonymised survey results will provide your HR department with all the information it requires to create focused well-being programmes circulated around collective responses.

Stress-related claims

It is important to remember that as an employer you have a duty of care to your staff. Adequately failing to provide this care can result in an employee complaining of work-related stress and they may be able to bring any of the following claims: personal injury, breach of contract, unfair dismissal, discrimination or harassment under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997.

For example, if an employee has been regularly working in excess of their contractual hours and this has significantly impacted their health, they may have a claim for personal injury. Below we outline a case that focuses around long-working hours.

In Jones v Sandwell Metropolitan Borough Council [2002] EWCA Civ 76, Mrs Jones initially claimed that she rarely worked less than 48 hours a week and that she often worked as many as 60. This was subsequently revised to working more than 81 hours a week.

While the trial judge found it impossible to say precisely what hours she worked, suggesting that they probably varied from week to week, he accepted that on some occasions she probably did work the sort of hours suggested. While this was not happening all the time, it happened for a sufficient amount of the time to be “grossly excessive”.

The Court of Appeal noted that the issue was not exactly how many hours Mrs Jones actually worked, but whether the demands placed on her were reasonable in all the circumstances.
It found that it was not necessarily reasonable to expect so much of an administrative assistant whose pay and status were not those of a professional with an open-ended commitment to getting the job done.

Senior management knew that there were complaints of overwork that were likely to have some substance and offered help, but because of line management’s attitude that help was never effective. The judge had been entitled to find that Mrs Jones had been over-worked and that, in the circumstances, damage to her health was foreseeable.


The ability to notice that an employee is stressed is the first step when it comes to providing sufficient support to resolve this issue. Having a less-stressed workforce will equate to higher happiness levels, and in turn higher productivity levels, in addition to lower staff turnover.

It’s important that employers and managers support staff through work-related and personal causes of stress. However, with regards to work-related stress, following an agreement on acceptable and appropriate steps to take to reduce or eliminate the causes of the stress, they should be documented, either officially or via a well-being action plan. Until the issue is fixed or the individual feels better, actions should be reviewed often with them.

We always recommend that you seek advice from a suitably qualified adviser before taking any action. The information in this article only serves as a guide and no responsibility for loss occasioned by any person acting or refraining from action as a result of this material can be accepted by the authors or the firm.


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