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Stress and mental health

Stress and mental health

Download Prospect's guide on stress.

What is stress?

Stress is the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressure or other demands that are placed on them. People experience stress when they perceive an imbalance between the demands and their ability to cope with them.

There is a clear distinction between pressure, which can create a “buzz” and motivate you, and stress, which becomes a risk by being protracted. Stress is linked to mental and physical ill-health conditions, such as depression, anxiety and heart disease. 

Stress has risen in recent years to become the most common work-related ill health condition. According to the Health and Safety Executive, more than 500,000 people developed a work-related mental health condition in 2016/17. But figures from other organisations suggest that it may be much higher.

With effective management and staff engagement, work stress can be prevented and managed – just like any other health and safety risk. But all too often, stress and mental health problems are overlooked.

Studies suggest that an effective way to improve well-being is to connect with people around you. Being a member of Prospect can connect you with fellow colleagues, providing you with a network of support.

Symptoms and conditions

Stress can manifest itself in different ways in different people. Sometimes we know right away that we are stressed. Other times it can take us a while to realise. If you are stressed, you may notice changes in the way you think, feel or behave, for example you might:

  • be irritable
  • feel anxious
  • feel depressed
  • lose interest in things
  • struggle to make decisions
  • struggle to concentrate
  • avoid talking to others
  • become tearful
  • smoke or drink alcohol more than usual

It may also affect you physically. You might experience:

  • restlessness
  • headaches
  • tiredness
  • cramps, muscle spasms or pins and needles
  • high blood pressure
  • nausea or dizziness

Stress is not itself a health condition, but it can cause a number of mental and physical ill-health conditions.

Research has demonstrated strong links between stress and physical conditions such as heart disease, back pain, headaches, gastrointestinal problems and various minor illnesses; and psychological conditions such as anxiety and depression.

Risk factors

Stress can affect anyone, but the things that cause people stress can vary. Sometimes there is no obvious cause. Often, factors outside of work can cause stress, such as moving house or money troubles.

However, there are well-recognised causes of stress at work, including:

  • poorly-managed organisational change
  • poor work design and organisation 
  • job insecurity
  • increases in the intensity and pace of work
  • high emotional demands
  • poor work-life balance
  • unfair performance management
  • long hours
  • bullying and harassment

What your employer should do

Just like other occupational risks to health and safety, employers have a moral and legal duty to protect members of staff from stress at work by doing a risk assessment and acting on it.

To do this, they need to understand the ways in which the working environment and people’s jobs cause stress and take steps to address them.

The HSE has developed a useful model for managing work-related stress called the Management Standards.

What are the management standards?

The Management Standards look at the six key areas of work that, if properly managed, can help to reduce work-related stress. They provide simple statements about good management practice in each area. The six areas are:

  • Demands – these include workload, work patterns and the work environment
  • Control – how much say the person has in the way they do their work
  • Support – this includes the encouragement, sponsorship and resources provided by the organisation, line management and colleagues
  • Relationships – this includes promoting positive working to avoid conflict and dealing with unacceptable behaviour
  • Role – whether people understand their role within the organisation and whether the organisation ensures that they do not have conflicting roles
  • Change – how organisational change (large or small) is managed and communicated in the organisation.

The standards are goals that employers should work towards through risk assessment, worker involvement and continuous improvement.

They are particularly good because they offer employers a practical way to work with members of staff to prevent stress from occurring, rather than simply responding to issues that have already happened.

However, the list isn’t exhaustive. For example, change and restructuring, which are major causes of stress, are often associated with perceived injustices that adversely affect people. Prospect has been pushing for perceived justice to be a seventh management standard.

What you can do

Remember, the responsibility for tackling stress sits with your employer. But even though there are likely to be things happening that you can't control, there are still things – both in and out of work – you can do to reduce of pressure you're under.

  • Keep yourself in good physical and social health. Exercise can reduce the emotional intensity you are experiencing, while evidence suggests that what we eat may affect the way we feel. Connecting with people around you – your colleagues, family, friends or local community – can boost well-being.
  • Identify your triggers. Working out your personal stress triggers can help you anticipate problems and think of possible solutions. Even if you can't avoid the situations you identify, being ready can help. Take some time to reflect on events and feelings that could be contributing to your stress.
  • Organise your time. If you can adjust the way you organise your time, you may feel more in control and better able to handle pressure. Identify your best time of day and do the tasks then that demand most energy and concentration. Make a to-do list and prioritise. Take your breaks and get some fresh air.

If you have read the information above and think you are suffering from stress, speak to your Prospect health and safety rep, if there is one. If they can't help, they may know someone who can. They may be able to intervene.

Representatives will be in a better position to raise the problem with management – and get the problems tackled – if they know how many of their members are suffering and the problems that are causing it.

Stress training for Prospect reps

Prospect runs a Mental Health Awareness course to help reps feel better equipped to support members with mental ill health in the workplace.

Find out more