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Last updated: 29.01.19

What are the harmful effects of stress at work?

What are the harmful effects of stress at work?

Stress has many negative effects on the individual, as well as those around them, which can become particularly problematic in the workplace. Stress is a big problem in the world of work, with research showing it has become increasingly prevalent in recent years.

In a survey of 540 UK employees by Cascade HR for Mental Health Awareness Week, two-thirds (67 per cent) of respondents said they had felt stressed at work for a week or more during the previous 12 months. One in five people had taken time off because of stress.

Workload was identified as the biggest cause, with 68 per cent of workers citing it as the source of their stress, followed by colleague behaviour (47 per cent), juggling work and family pressures (40 per cent) and management style (39 per cent).

With stress causing more and more problems in the workplace, employers need to be aware of just how big an impact it can have on individuals, teams and the organisation as a whole.

Effects on the individual

Some of the most prevalent and noticeable symptoms of stress are directly linked to a person's ability to attend work, think clearly and concentrate for sustained periods of time.

Common symptoms include:

  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Feeling tired all the time
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Headaches
  • Dizziness
  • Difficulty making decisions
  • Constantly worrying
  • Feeling anxious or fearful
  • Lacking self-esteem
  • Feeling irritable

Someone who is suffering from stress may be so emotionally overwhelmed that they are unable to attend work at all, or if they do come in the everyday pressures of their job could cause their mental health to decline further.

A stressed employee could also be prone to worries about professional failure and inadequacy, so it's important for employers to show support and understanding.

Effects on co-workers and managers

The impact of stress is most acute for the individuals experiencing it, of course, but the repercussions can also spread to the people and teams around those feeling the effects first-hand.

Colleagues and managers will probably want to help anyone who is struggling with stress, but might feel unsure about how to do so.

Stress can also have a snowball effect that employers need to manage carefully. If one person is taking time off because of stress, their co-workers could start to have worries of their own about managing a heavier workload.

Furthermore, absences in the workforce can lead to disgruntled clients and practical difficulties in how a business operates, placing greater strain on the entire workforce.

Effects on the organisation

Protecting staff health and wellbeing should always be the priority for an employer, but it's inevitable that occurrences of stress in the workforce will affect a business on a financial and operational level.

Firstly, there is a risk productivity will suffer. If an employee has been experiencing stress for some time but hasn't come forward about it, their level of output and efficiency could have diminished gradually over a long period.

Like all health problems, stress can also pose financial risks for employers and the economy as a whole. A study released by FirstCare last year showed that workplace absence costs the UK economy £18 billion in lost productivity each year.

Individual organisations with employees taking extended periods off work may also have to pay for temporary staff to plug gaps in the workforce.

Mitigating the effects

For the sake of individual workers, teams and the organisation as a whole, employers need to take proactive steps to identify and mitigate the effects of stress in the workplace.

Potentially beneficial measures include:

  • Conducting targeted risk assessments to identify stress risk factors and address potential safety concerns resulting from stress
  • Holding regular one-on-one consultations where employees can discuss their concerns about stress in confidence
  • Providing bespoke training to help managers and safety representatives identify, assess and manage occupational and non-occupational stress
  • Making reasonable adjustments to working methods or arrangements to manage stress factors

Introducing focused and relevant provisions to manage workforce stress looks set to grow in importance over the coming years, particularly for employers taking a proactive approach to staff health and wellbeing.

For a consultation on how Virtual College can help your organisation improve its working environment through a targeted mental health training strategy, get in touch with us at hello@virtual-college.co.uk.

Take a look at our free employee toolkit full of resources to help staff manage and cope with their mental health. We also have short courses designed to help staff look after their own mental health and for organisations to help support staff through mental health.