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Work-related stress

Work-related stress (WRS) can be defined as stress caused or made worse by work. This might happen when a person perceives their work environment in a way that makes them feel unable to cope. It could be caused by perceived or real pressures, deadlines, threats, or anxieties in the workplace.

There is an important distinction between pressure and stress. Pressure at the workplace is unavoidable due to work demands.

Pressure perceived as acceptable may even keep workers alert, motivated and able to work and learn. But when that pressure becomes excessive or unmanageable it can lead to stress, which can affect a person's health.

Signs and symptoms

Stress can cause many different symptoms. It could have an impact on a person's behavior, mental health, and physical wellbeing.

It’s not always easy to recognise when stress is the reason a person is acting differently.

Symptoms of stress include:

  • Mind racing or going blank
  • Not being able to ‘switch off’
  • Lack of attention to detail
  • Self-esteem and confidence plummeting
  • Disorganised thoughts
  • Diminished sense of meaning in life
  • Lack of control or the need for too much control
  • Negative self-statements and evaluation
  • Difficulty in making decisions
  • Loss of perspective

You may be:

  • making ‘mountains out of molehills’
  • driving yourself too hard with ‘I must do this, ought to do that, should do the other’ or demanding too much of others as well as yourself
  • Irritable
  • Angry
  • Depressed
  • Jealous
  • Restless
  • Anxious
  • Hyper alert
  • Unnecessarily guilty
  • Panic
  • Mood swings, crying easily
  • Becoming withdrawn and not wanting to socialise
  • Increasing alcohol, nicotine or drug intake
  • Under or over eating
  • Accident-prone and careless
  • Impatient, violent, aggressive or compulsive - pacing, fidgeting, swearing, blaming, throwing and hitting!
  • Working longer hours - not taking breaks, taking work home, procrastination
  • Poor time management - not having time for leisure activities

Work-related stress affects people differently, what one person perceives as stressful, may not affect another. Skills and experience, as well as age and disability, can influence a person's ability to cope.

Physical symptoms
  • Pounding heart
  • Elevated blood pressure
  • Sweaty palms
  • Chest tightness
  • Aching neck, jaw and back muscles
  • Headache
  • Chest pain
  • Abdominal cramps
  • Nausea
  • Trembling
  • Sleep disturbance
  • Tiredness
  • Susceptibility to minor illness
  • Itching
  • Easily startled
  • Forgetfulness

How work-related stress impacts teams

Employers must assess the risks of work-related stress and take action to protect their employees.

Work-related stress can affect an entire team in a number of ways. Some of the signs and symptoms to look for in the workplace are:

Employee attitude and behaviour
  • Loss of motivation and commitment
  • Employee working increasingly long hours but for diminishing returns
  • Erratic or poor timekeeping
  • Poor morale and a lack of engagement
  • Increased intentions to leave the job
Relationships at work
  • Tension and conflict between colleagues and teams
  • Poor relationships with clients and patients
  • Increase in industrial relations or disciplinary problems
Work performance
  • Reduced productivity
  • Increased incidents and error rates
  • Poor decision making
  • Deterioration in planning and control of work

Signs and symptoms can also include an increase in:

  • sickness absence (especially frequent short periods of absence)
  • presenteeism (staff coming into work when they are unwell)
  • employee turnover

Causes of stress at work

Research shows there are 6 aspects of work design that can have an impact on work-related stress (WRS) if not properly managed:

  • Demands - the demands of people’s jobs, such as workload, working patterns and the work environment
  • Control - the amount of control individuals have at work, or how much say they have over the way they do their work
  • Support - the support employees receive from their line manager (manager support) and their colleagues (peer support)
  • Relationships - how well relationships are functioning in the workplace, including preventing bullying and harassment, managing conflict and ensuring positive relationships
  • Role - how clear people are about their role
  • Change - how well change is managed and communicated

Preventing work-related stress

Managers should make sure employees are aware of:

  • WRS and what it is
  • signs and symptoms of WRS
  • supports available
  • responsibilities around WRS
  • how to raise concerns and report WRS early

You can prevent and reduce work-related stress by talking to your employees and learning how to identify signs of stress.

The HSE approach to preventing work-related stress focuses on risk identification and assessment, as well as the implementation of control measures and employee engagement in risk management.

Risk assessment process for managers

You can conduct WRS risk assessments with a team or an individual to identify and report WRS signs and symptoms.

You must ensure that the risks associated with WRS are identified and documented in the risk assessments. These should follow the 6 key areas of work design outlined in the management standards.

You can do one of the following:

HSE Work Positive (CI) is a WRS risk assessment process that helps you evaluate work-related stress. It helps to conduct a work-related risk assessment and use the stress section results to complete the work-related stress risk assessment form. To meet the requirements of the policy, you must complete the work-related stress risk assessment form.

Overview of HSE approach to work-related stress risk assessment (PDF, 466 KB, 1 page)

Learn more about the roles and responsibilities for managing WRS in the HSE National Policy on the Prevention and Management of Work-Related Stress, 2023.

Support and advice for employees

It is normal to feel under pressure and experience stress at various points in our working and personal lives. Understanding stress reactions and how stress affects us can help us manage stress more effectively.

Avoid work-related stress by:

  • talking things through with someone to help lessen stress or anxiety
  • not trying to appear strong and managing everything alone
  • contacting Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) - a free counselling service for employees
  • raising stress-related concerns with your manager

You can discuss your concerns with your manager, agree on a referral to support services, or request more information about these services.

These could include:

You can contact these support services directly. You can do this without discussing the issue with your manager. You can also ask your General Practitioner (GP) for support and to manage your health from a medical perspective.

HSE health and wellbeing programmes to support staff include:

Support and advice for managers

As a manager, you should familiarise yourself with the HSE National Policy on the Prevention and Management of Work-Related Stress, 2023. This provides a framework for preventing and managing WRS, including roles and responsibilities relating to risk assessment.

To assist you in managing work-related stress, see the training programme Preventing and Managing Work-Related Stress - A guide for Managers.

This programme aims to raise awareness of your duty of care in preventing and managing work-related stress in accordance with your statutory responsibilities, and it will guide you through the WRS risk assessment process. It is mandatory for managers in the HSE and is available on HSeLanD

Related documents

HSE Policy on the Prevention and Management of Work-related Stress 2023

Signs and symptoms of work-related stress (PDF, 420 KB, 2 pages)

HSE management of concerns relating to work-related stress (PDF, 488 KB, 1 page)

HSE supports available (PDF, 430 KB, 1 page)

HSE approach to work-related stress risk assessment (PDF, 466 KB, 1 page)

Work-related stress (WRS) poster (PDF, 190 KB, 1 page)

HSE Work Positive poster (PDF, 300 KB, 1 page)

HSE National Policy on the Prevention and Management of Work-Related Stress 2023 Fast Fact (PDF, 1 MB, 2 pages)

Risk assessments

WRS Risk Assessment Form

WRS Risk Assessment Form Fillable Template

Sample Team WRS Risk Assessment Form Worked Example

Sample Individual WRS Risk Assessment Form Worked Example

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