The duty of employers to protect employees from stress at work

Due to rising inflation rates, the cost of living crisis is one of the biggest concerns for UK households. Soaring energy prices, rising interest rates and the ever-increasing cost of goods and services is resulting in many feeling the financial squeeze.

Against this background, it has long been known that external pressures can have an effect on an employee’s ability to deal with day-to-day work activities, which in turn, can manifest in work-related stress. In this article, we discuss what an employer should look out for, and its legal duty in relation to the risks of work-related stress.

What is work-related stress?

Work-related stress is defined by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) as a harmful reaction that people have to undue pressures and demands placed upon them at work. However, this can also manifest itself due to external stresses and pressures. By its nature therefore, the causes of an employee’s stress can be difficult to identify.

Stress, depression and anxiety can affect people in different ways. An individual may change their behaviour or take more sickness leave, arrive for work late and be more nervous. They may have a tendency to experience mood swings, become withdrawn, lose motivation, commitment and confidence and have increased emotional reactions; for example, a person may be more tearful, sensitive, or aggressive.

The consequences for an employer, if an employee suffering from stress is not managed in good time, is that they may see a decrease in performance, increase in absence from work and potentially an increase in staff turnover and even legal claims. It is important for an employer to recognise that what may be stressful for one person may not be for another. As such, each employee should be considered and treated on an individual basis.

What is an employer’s legal duty?

Employers have a legal duty to protect employees from stress at work. By completing a risk assessment, an employer should be able to identify workplace stressors and put measures in place to protect their employees. Under Regulation 3 of The Management of Health and Safety Work Regulations 1999, if an employer has more than five employees, it must commit the significant aspects of its risk assessment to writing. An employer should also consider having a stress management policy in place which sets out its strategy.

The Health and Safety Executive Management Standards approach will be of assistance to employers in relation to identifying and managing the causes of stress in the workplace. The HSE has identified six areas that can affect stress levels and lead to work-related stress, which should be managed accordingly:

  • Demands - work demands such as tight deadlines, workload and work patterns.
  • Control – individuals unable to control the way they do their work due to a lack of say.
  • Support – not receiving enough information and support to undertake their role.
  • Relationships – having trouble with relationships at work or being bullied.
  • Role - not fully understanding their role and/or responsibilities.
  • Change – lack of engagement when a business changes its structure or procedures due to poor management and/or lack of communication.

The HSE has developed a number of tools, guidance and templates to assist employers managing work-related stress which are based on its Management Standards Approach and are accessible on its website. Recommendations made by the HSE for employers in relation to recognising and supporting employees include:

  • Consulting with Trade Unions Safety Representatives on all proposed action related to the prevention of workplace stress as well as Safety representatives and any health and safety Committees.
  • Providing training to managers and supervisory staff in relation to good management practices, as well as how to identify the signs of stress.
  • Providing confidential counselling for staff affected by stress caused by either work or external factors.
  • Providing adequate resources to enable managers to implement the company’s agreed stress management strategy including holding routine team and meetings.
  • Considering having trained mental health first aiders on site.

The above list is not exhaustive, and each business should consider its own individual needs.

The earlier it is recognised that an employee is experiencing difficulties and is supported, either internally by talking to someone within the company, such as their line manager or colleague, or externally, such as a GP or someone in an occupational health team, the impact on the employee and their employer should be less in the long-term.

Talking toolkits developed by the HSE, including the Working Minds App, can encourage line managers and others to have conversations with their colleagues to reduce and prevent stress in the workplace. The toolkits also give guidance in relation to signposting colleagues in the right direction to encourage them to talk to someone and obtain the right advice, including financial, from organisations. Individual action plans may also be of assistance in setting objective and goals.


The HSE is increasingly focusing on the prevention of ill health, including work-related stress. Stress, depression and anxiety account for 51% of recorded work-related illnesses in Great Britain, according to the latest statistics published by the HSE for 2021-22. It is likely, however, that even these large figures do not present the complete picture as employees may be reluctant to self-report for fear of being stigmatised and they do not reflect the recent rise in the cost of living.

Charities and other organisations are reporting an increase in contact for financial advice and support as the cost of living continues to increase. Employers should therefore be mindful of how stress manifests itself and ensure its staff and in particular managers, can recognise the warning signs and are aware of the management tools available in order to encourage its employees to talk as well as seek the assistance they require.

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