How to deal with work-related stress

Your health is all-important. Don’t let stress affect your mental well being.

At work, pressure can be a good thing. It can motivate and focus you, as well as make you more productive. However, this can sometimes tip you over the edge, leading you to become stressed as you get to a point where you feel unable to cope.

According to PwC, more than a third of the UK workforce experiences anxiety, depression or stress. Around two in five employees had taken time off work or reduced their responsibilities due to their mental health.

This is serious stuff. You spend much of your life at work, and it becomes an important part of your identity. If you’re suffering at work, then you can suffer as a person. It’s more than likely to affect your personal life, and can lead to a vicious negative mental health cycle that becomes harder and harder to escape.

Major causes of work-related stress

Before it turns into a problem, it makes sense to detect what causes you stress in the workplace, so you can work on doing something about it. Jobsite HR Director David Clift pinpoints common causes of work-related stress:

  • “Workplace demands. Some modern-day workplaces take no prisoners. If the organisation you work for is lucky enough to be constantly busy, then it’s very easy to get overloaded or struggle with the work you need to do. You may have a poor work-life balance, which can put a strain on your personal and home lives.”
  • “Bad relationships. A lot of jobs will require regular contact with people at work.  If you’re having problems with people at work, especially your boss, the day-to-day can get very difficult, very quickly. If relationships break down, this can cause a great deal of stress. You can also feel stress if you feel particularly isolated or are treated unfairly.”
  • “Job uncertainty. This can come in different forms. If there are difficulties in the wider business, you may have worries about keeping your job. If you don’t know what your job involves and workloads vary widely, you may get confused about your goals and how you should be performing. This can all cause stress.”
How to deal with work-related stress

Image: Adobe Stock

Practical steps to reduce stress

All jobs have the potential to cause stress, so it’s critical to spot and manage it in the workplace before it affects your overall health. Here are a few practical tips that Clift suggests could help you:

  • “Learn to say no. Making sure you understand your capabilities and time management is critical to avoid overwork. Only you will know when possible turns into impossible, and one key skill to manage workplace stress is to say no when you should. You may be tempted to take on more work than you can handle to win praise in the short term, but in the long term you might be asking for trouble.”
  • “Build a positive relationship with your boss. This is crucial. It helps in terms of managing workload – you can offer specific, measurable ways why you might be doing too much and work out solutions. In addition, you can speak to your boss about creating a work environment that allows you to perform best at your job without creating any needless stress.”
  • “Establish boundaries. The modern-day workplace and always-on connectivity can certainly cause stress, especially if you feel required to be in touch with work 24 hours a day. It’s important to set boundaries – leave work on time if possible and cut yourself off work email when you get home. This will also provide perspective – although work is important, it’s not important enough to negatively affect your personal life.”
  • “Keep healthy, recharged and relaxed. Although tempting, as they can provide short-term relief, alcohol and smoking are not good ways to combat stress. Much better is exercise and relaxation techniques such as mindfulness. Also, make sure to take holidays when you need to – everybody’s batteries get run down at some point, and time off is a great opportunity to recharge them.”

Employers are legally obliged to help you

There are no specific laws aimed at workplace stress, but employers have a duty of care to their employees and do have duties under the Health and Safety Act to ensure the health, safety and welfare of staff. They have a legal duty to take reasonable steps to ensure your health and safety at work – and this includes minimising work-related stress.

As well as work-related stress, outside factors could come into play, such as bereavement, relationship problems or disability. Make sure you make your employer aware of the stress you’re under. Otherwise, they won’t be able to offer the necessary support that might help. Employees also have a duty to take reasonable care for their own health and safety and of others.

In cases where matters have escalated to some kind of dismissal event, if you haven’t taken the steps to inform your employer there was a problem in the first place, they can use the fact that they weren’t aware of your problems as part of their defence.

How to deal with work-related stress

Image: Adobe Stock

Taking days off work due to stress

You’re entitled to take time off for genuine mental health issues just as much as you would be if you suffered from a physical illness. This means you’re entitled to days off and sick pay as outlined in your contract or as Statutory Sick Pay.

It’s rare, but there are occasionally circumstances where an employee’s ill health means they are no longer able to perform the job they were contracted to do. There are a number of issues/procedures to consider in those types of cases but, usually, employers would consult with an employee’s medical advisors or may even ask for a medical examination before any decisions are made/action taken.

Your legal right to make stress claims

It’s an unfortunate situation where an employee makes a legal claim against an employer due to work-related stress, but it does happen. Such claims could be for personal injury or constructive dismissal (for example if an employee feels forced to resign because of the stress they are experiencing at work).

Personal injury claims

  • A personal injury claim would arise from the duty of care that employers have to staff and to provide a safe place of work.
  • The problem must involve a recognised psychiatric illness, such as clinical depression, and you would have to show this was solely caused by stress at work.
  • You would need to show that it was reasonably foreseeable by your employer that you would develop a mental illness. They must also have been made aware of your worsening condition.
  • Employers are usually entitled to assume that an employee can withstand the normal pressures that the job entails, and are entitled to believe what they are told by an employee.

Constructive dismissal

  • The issues you’re experiencing must be sufficiently serious for you to resign and you would normally be expected to lodge a grievance (or at least raise the issue internally) to see if it can be dealt with before taking the step to resign from work. If an employer first dismisses you due to your work-related stress, you may have a claim for unfair dismissal.

Sometimes an employee’s particular condition can meet the criteria of being a disability, which is a “protected characteristic” under the Equality Act. If that is the case, then as well as the above claims, you may be able to make a claim for disability discrimination. As well as disability discrimination claims involving your dismissal, they may also cover situations where your employer fails to make reasonable adjustments in the workplace aimed at alleviating your stress.

Try to manage your work stress, but don’t be afraid to use your legal rights

Make sure you find ways to deal with stress issues, as they can hurt your general health and performance. If it does get particularly bad, you may not wish to make too many waves at work, fearing that you find yourself out of favour and out of a job.

However, you shouldn’t forget that you ultimately do have certain legal rights, so don’t be afraid to make use of them. Unchecked stress can cause long-term illness, and this could affect your ability to find new work. Absences due to stress could be disclosed to new employers.

If you cannot resolve matters with your employer, and you don’t wish to make a legal claim, then you may have no option but to leave and change jobs. Sometimes a fresh start is all that’s needed.

You may want to seek legal advice before you do so, however, as an employer could be receptive to a mutual departure of your employment which could include a financial package and an agreed job reference.

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