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A stress at work risk assessment is a document that companies in the U.K. are legally required to complete and action. It requires companies to look carefully into the specific risks of workplace stress that their staff may face, and make a tangible plan on how to try and minimise these risks. In this article we’ll talk through what a risk assessment needs to include to be effective, and give you a stress at work risk assessment template (anchor link to bottom of page if you can) that you can download and use for your company.
A stress at work risk assessment is a document that companies in the U.K. are legally required to complete and action.
What is work-related stress?
A certain amount of work stress can be a good thing: the human brain isn’t primed for constant boredom, and the adrenaline rush of a tight deadline or a big presentation can help people feel engaged and challenged at work. Too much job stress over too long a period, however, is a different thing altogether. Left unchecked, workplace stress and worsening mental health go hand in hand. As well as having a physiological impact on people’s sleep, appetite and libido, prolonged stress is linked with both anxiety and depression.
And there are costs of stress for businesses as well as for individual employees. The Health and Safety Executive, the U.K. government agency responsible for the regulation of workplace health and safety, modelled that 13.5 million working days are lost to stress a year. All that adds up to a lot of lost productivity, missed deadlines, dysfunctional teams and missed opportunities.
How should we define workplace stress? The HSE says:
“Stress can be defined as the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressure or other types of demand placed on them”.
What's notable about the definition is that work-related stress is a reaction to pressure, rather than just pressure itself. Pressure, in the right amount and managed correctly, can be great for both boosting performance and making work more fulfilling.
Workplace stress is different to workplace burnout. Stress is a reaction to a demand or expectation, whereas burnout is a reaction to prolonged stress. Leaving stress unchecked for too long can lead to burnout. Many of the symptoms overlap — like feeling irritable, for example — but stress often makes people temporarily more alert and engaged, while burnout can present as a lack of alertness and engagement.
Download our Stress Risk Assessment Template
Recognising signs of stress at work
According to the NHS, signs of stress include general changes in behaviour like:
- Being more snappy or short-tempered than usual
- Struggling to make decisions
- Being more forgetful than usual
HSE adds that some signs of workplace stress more specifically might include:
- More arguments
- More time off work
- Arriving late to work or leaving early
- Being more withdrawn (e.g. being off-camera more often on video calls)
- Reacting more emotionally (e.g. being more sensitive or tearful)
Although any of these can be work-related stress symptoms, they might also be something else — or nothing at all. As with all aspects of mental health, it’s not your place as a manager to try and diagnose someone else: that’s a job for a GP or psychiatrist. Your job is to look for potential signs of stress and then open up a conversation with the person you’re concerned about.
Now that we’ve defined what workplace stress is (and isn’t), we can look at the ways it can be reduced: (a) by the employer reducing excessive pressure on employees, and (b) by providing tools and resources for employees to change their reaction to pressure (in other words, to boost their resilience).
But first, let's start with what the law says about stress at work.
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An employer's legal requirements regarding stress at work: complete a stress at work risk assessment
Employers in the U.K. have two primarily legal requirements when it comes to mental health at work: one is to make sure not to discriminate against any employee with a mental health condition that classifies as a disability, and the other is to carry out a risk assessment for stress at work and take reasonable action based on it.
You only need to do one stress risk assessment document for the whole company, not one for each employee.
The only companies that are exempt from having to write down their stress risk assessment are those with less than five employees. All companies with more than five employees are required by law to fill one out.
What are the 5 principles of risk assessment?
Your stress risk assessment document should include the following in order to be complete:
1. What the primary causes of workplace stress might be. What’s the first step in the risk assessment for work-related stress? It’s to figure out what might be driving stress in your company at the moment in particular. Reasons could include: periods of high workload at certain times (like before Christmas or the end of the financial year), job insecurity, company financial instability (not enough runway), unclear roles, etc.
2. Who is most likely to be affected by stress at work. Perhaps junior employees suddenly have to take on more responsibility, perhaps customer-facing teams are bracing for responses to a batch of faulty orders, perhaps first-time managers are under-prepared.
3. What you're already doing to control the risks of job stress. This could take the form of monitoring overtime and breaks, one-to-ones with managers, or making sure you have enough people.
4. What further (reasonable) action you need to control the risks. This might include getting the budget to hire freelancers for upcoming busy periods, cascading more information on company funding updates, or clarifying roles and responsibilities.
5. Who is responsible for each action, and when it needs to be done by. Accountability is key!
What are the 6 HSE risk factors for work-related stress?
Let's dive into a bit more detail on what some of the common causes of workplace stress are, and therefore what you should be looking for in your assessment.
Here are the six stress risk factors are the areas of work that, if not up to scratch, are — according to HSE — the primary causes of stress at work:
1. Demands — this includes things like workload, work patterns and the working environment.
2. Control — how much say the person has in the way they do their work.
3. Support — the encouragement, recognition, training and resources provided by the company, manager and colleagues.
4. Relationships — this includes promoting positive working relationships and dealing with unacceptable behaviour.
5. Role — whether people understand their role clearly, and whether the company ensures that there aren't conflicting or unnecessary roles.
6. Change — how change (large or small, internal or external) is managed and communicated by senior people in the business as well as managers.
A risk assessment template for stress at work
Stress assessments shouldn’t be stressful themselves! That’s why we’ve made a version of HSE’s risk assessment template with added prompts and detail to make it easier to understand and fill out.
Who completes a risk assessment?
Whoever’s responsible for looking after people in your company in general, or health and safety in particular, is probably best placed to carry out the risk assessment. In bigger companies that’s most likely to be someone in the People team; in smaller companies it could be anyone from a founder to a managing director to someone in the Ops team.
Only one person needs to fill out the risk assessment, on behalf of the whole company — although it’s recommended that you get input from other people when filling it out. You could speak to your managers to make sure you're getting a clear picture of these stress hazards, or if you'd like to be more thorough you could send out an employee questionnaire on the six causes of stress to get a more accurate read on the situation in your workplace.
The important thing, however, is that your company is complying with the law by making sure the risk assessment is written down, and that the right adjustments are made, to protect your employees from being exposed to stressors beyond the normal demands of working life.
As a reminder: when it comes to the legal requirements of protecting employees against undue stress, here's the one thing you as an employer are required to do (and what you aren’t):
✅ Fill out a stress risk assessment form and take reasonable action to protect employees against the biggest risks
❌ Take unreasonable steps to reduce stress hazards for employees, or create individual risk assessments for each employee
Download our Stress Risk Assessment Template
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