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Stress In The Workplace

Published on 8 May, 2015
Jean Fisher
Content Manager

Occupational Health Blog

This month’s question relates to stress in the workplace.

An employee’s job has just increased in size because all staff are having to do more with less, but it becomes apparent that this hitherto highflyer/good performer isn’t coping because they start failing at the job….what is OH standpoint on this trend?

This is an interesting question and a common scenario which appears puzzling to most people. In reality it boils down to work life balance, job design, the fundamentals of looking after ourselves and good management principals in noticing changes in employee behaviour.

Work can be all consuming.

Most employees want to do well at their job. They get up in the morning and look forward to the challenges of the day. Younger ambitious professionals in particular, want to show that they are succeeding in a fiercely competitive world, but older employees also can be affected as they often have difficulties with change and increasing responsibilities. In order to cope with additional demands, employees work longer hours to show commitment and then have to give up hobbies and time with friends to accommodate the increasing workload.

They might seem initially successful at what they do, getting in early and leaving late and they appear to have an endless capacity for work. Then, due to changes in the organisation they are given even more work. Having been so motivated and successful, managers feel that the employee will cope easily with the additional workload. At first they appear to take on the challenge, but then things start to change. They start to make mistakes and colleagues and managers notice that they no longer appear to have the same energy and drive they once had.

The employee begins to come in extra early and leaves even later each day, but despite this, the quality of their work is going down all the time. Managers may have an initial performance discussion with them, but all that happens is that they work longer hours and take even more work home to try and achieve what is required. Non work activities are replaced with work activities, so an employee’s whole world becomes work and family and home life cease to exist causing additional stress.

An employee’s perspective on who they are as a person becomes dependant on how they manage their workload and self-esteem and confidence go out of the window, replaced by anxiety, stress and worry. Over time this situation leads to the development of a mental health illness such as depression. The manager then receives a sick note which says ‘work related stress’ or ‘depression’ and everyone involved is shocked.

Work life balance is the key.

This is a very common scenario from an OH perspective. People are not machines and need to have a good work/life balance in place to be able to successfully manage a busy workload. When employees are given additional work however, it can mean that the job becomes impossible to do. Putting two jobs together or giving someone additional work, without any real objective evaluation of the requirements of the new job, can mean that the work just can’t be done no matter how hard the employee tries.

So, what should companies do to avoid this happening?

Firstly, work with Occupational Health professionals to create a health and wellbeing strategy which is business focused and designed to detect early signs of ill health in your organisation. Preparing for these issues within a business should form part of the business contingency planning process.

Secondly, use the HSE stress risk assessment process to examine a job with the employee to determine if there are likely to be problems in the following areas.

  • Demands
  • Control
  • Support
  • Relationships
  • Role
  • Change

Remember, it is the job which is being looked at and not the employee. Use the stress risk assessment approach at team meetings and appraisals to check that there are no areas of concern developing for an employee. You can then offer advice and guidance to enable the employee to manage that concern.

Putting these simple steps in place will massively reduce the risk of employees developing mental health conditions due to their workload. Just do it.


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