hr stress

How HR can support employees with stress

hr stress
Stress Awareness Month is a great opportunity to make your staff aware of the signs and effects of stress and what they can do to combat it.

It’s also an important opportunity for HR to review how they approach stress in the workplace.

In this guide, we’ll look at:

  • The current state of stress in the workplace
  • How to identify stress in the workplace
  • How to increase awareness of stress and stress-related symptoms
  • Tackling stress in the workplace
  • How have your changes worked? And how can you continually keep stress low?


Stress is defined by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) as “the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them.”

This is really important for businesses and HR to consider as they look to reduce stress at work. This is something we’ll come on to later in this guide.

What is undeniable is that reducing stress in your employees at work is a win-win for everyone.

Employees are happier, more productive and are less likely to move on and find work elsewhere.

So, what does stress currently look like at work?


Current state of stress in the workplace

We’ve all experienced stress in the last year to some degree, but what has stress at work looked like during the pandemic?

  • Employees in the UK have increased their weekly working hours by 25%, (NordVPN Teams)
  • 44% of UK employees reported being expected to do more work over the last year (Wildgoose)
  • Work-related stress, depression or anxiety account for 44% of work-related ill health and 54% of working days lost (HSE)
  • Stress costs businesses over £5 billion a year due to stress-related absence in the UK (HSE).


The pandemic has caused added stress both inside and outside of work and it appears to have added further work-related pressure on employees.

Referring back to HSE’s definition of stress, stress is heavily linked to added pressures and demands. Businesses clearly have a big role to play in reducing stress.

The pandemic and remote working in particular has also made spotting the signs of stress and other mental health challenges much more difficult.

This has been a big challenge for HR over the last year. So, how can HR better spot signs of stress in employees?



hr stress

Identifying stress in the workplace

Identifying the signs of stress in the workplace early can help prevent further mental health challenges and help find a resolution sooner.

As mentioned though, this won’t be easy for HR particularly with many now working from home.

When identifying stress in teams, the HSE outlines a few signs to look out for:

  • Arguments
  • Higher staff turnover
  • More reports of stress
  • More sickness absence
  • Decreased performance
  • More complaints and grievances.


For individuals, they advise to look out for when employees:

  • Take more time off
  • Arrive for work later
  • Are twitchier or more nervous
  • Have mood swings
  • Are withdrawn
  • Experience a loss of motivation, commitment and confidence
  • Have more emotional reactions – being more tearful, sensitive or aggressive.


These could be identifiers of other mental health challenges too.

The really important thing to remember here is to treat these behaviours as potential signs of mental health challenges rather than facets of someone’s personality.

If someone has experienced a loss of motivation for example, this isn’t necessarily an indicator of laziness or a lack of discipline.

It could point to a wider mental health problem, which is more likely now in the current climate too.

As mentioned, spotting these signs when remote working can be tricky, but there are a few things HR can do.

When remote working, it’s important for everyone to work together to spot any potential signs of stress in their colleagues.

Increasing awareness of the signs of stress throughout the organisation is one important way to achieve this.

Equally important is employee feedback and designing an anonymous survey with some of the signs of stress in mind, which can help HR gain an idea of how stress may be affecting staff.

So, how can you increase the awareness of the signs of stress across your organisation?


Increasing awareness of stress within your organisation

Thankfully, there’s lots of experts and useful information out there on all manner of mental health topics.

Charities like Mind can provide mental health training to your staff to help spot the signs not just of stress but of other mental health issues too.

HR can use their company intranet to share useful material on stress from charities such as Mind or the government agency HSE.

Recently, Channel 4 even introduced an employee wellbeing day where employees were encouraged to take a day off to focus on their own health and wellbeing.

Days like these can be used to encourage staff to learn more about their mind and how stress can affect them and their colleagues. Most importantly, it can help them de-stress and take a well-earned break.

Alternatively, you might try days with no meetings to allow staff to manage their workload more effectively which could be causing stress. According to research by Microsoft, time spent in meetings is more than double what it was at the beginning of 2020.

As mentioned, it’s important to start by figuring out where the problems lie when it comes to stress at work within your organisation in order to tackle them the most effectively.

So, while awareness is important, it isn’t the cure. Once you’ve figured out where the problems lie when it comes to stress within your organisation, you’ll need a plan of action to tackle it head on.


hr stress

Tackling stress

As with all types of mental health challenges, there are challenges which are in the company’s control and those which aren’t.

Often, stress can be caused for any employee by something away from the workplace which their employer has no control over. In this scenario, providing professional support to help the employee manage and resolve the issue is incredibly important.

If an employee is found to be suffering from stress, the HSE recommend referring them to a GP or medical professional.

Employee benefits can and have been a vital support channel for employees suffering stress. The Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) for example provides 24/7, confidential support for employees suffering from all manner of mental health challenges.

Private Medical Insurance can also help by providing employees access to private medical mental health treatment.

For work-related stress where the organisation has more control of the cause of stress, a different approach is needed.

For example, an employee might be experiencing stress due to feeling overworked. In this scenario, mental health training for example might be seen as a sticking plaster over an issue which the company can directly influence.

This is why it’s important for organisations to review their work design according to HSE’s management standards.

According to HSE, there are 6 key areas of work design which if not met could cause poor health and wellbeing in employees.

These are:

  • Demands: Including workload, work patterns and the work environment
  • Control: How much say employees have over the way they work
  • Support: Encouragement, sponsorship and resources provided
  • Relationships: Avoiding conflict and appropriate conflict resolution
  • Role: Ensuring roles aren’t conflicting and are clearly defined
  • Change: Ensuring effective communication of any organisational change.


The EAP can really support this too. Employers get anonymous reporting on the types of challenges employees have been using the helpline for.

An organisation can use this information, alongside information from employee surveys and a review of work design to get a really clear idea of how stressed employees feel and what are the key causes of these in the workplace.


Analysing the effects of measures against stress

So, you now have a better idea of how stressed your employees might be. You’ve got a plan of action ready too, but how will you measure if it’s worked? And how will you ensure that this is a continual process?

This may depend highly on how you communicate with your team and how you gather employee feedback.

You could refer back to the signs of stress mentioned earlier in this article and get employee feedback based on these before and after you make changes to measure the effects. For example, are your employees feeling more motivated and confident since you made changes?

Depending on how long it takes your organisation to implement changes such as introducing an EAP or reviewing work design, you could measure this on a monthly or quarterly basis.

To ensure a continual process of monitoring and reducing stress levels, review these measures regularly and make changes accordingly.

For example, since you introduced your EAP and reviewed work design, have only some, but not all signs of stress improved? What measures could you introduce next to improve other markers of stress in your employees?


Driving and maintaining change

While Stress Awareness Month might be a great time for you to review how your company is managing and reducing stress at work, reviewing this regularly is as important as ever particularly in the current climate.

And it’s a no-brainer too! Employees who are less stressed are happier and more productive and reducing stress contributes to a more vibrant and positive place to work!