Mental Health Awareness Week


Mental Health Awareness Week takes place from 10 to 16 May 2021. This year, the Mental Health Foundation is inviting us to reconnect with nature across the week.

Whilst that might be more difficult for those required to attend the workplace, we would like, in support of the initiative, to talk about stress in the workplace and examine what it is and what we, as employers, can do to reduce its impact.

The word ‘stress’ means many different things to many different people and can be used when referring to minor setbacks or moderate burdens but can also be used to describe more challenging situations. Despite the word becoming commonplace in conversation, employers should try to ensure that they can detect cases of ‘genuine stress’ in the workplace early on so that potential issues can be tackled promptly.

What is ‘Stress’?

According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) it is:

‘The adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them.’

The HSE makes clear that pressure can be a good thing, but that stress happens when that pressure gets too much.

It can lead to illnesses like depression and anxiety, and physical impairments such as headaches, upset stomachs, musculoskeletal and heart problems as well as drug or alcohol abuse.

Employee absence is obviously another potential consequence, as well as a reduction in performance and/or productivity. Stress therefore has commercial, as well as personal, ramifications.

Employers have a legal duty to provide a safe place and system of work. Stress could potentially invoke rights under the Equality Act (including disability discrimination protection, if the resulting impairment satisfies the statutory definition), and/or lead to constructive dismissal claims.

In our opinion, aside from having a good policy and well-implemented procedures, the single most important thing an employer can do is to really get to know its workforce, so that it knows when there is a problem.

ACAS lists the following as common symptoms of stress:

• Changes in behaviour, mood, or interaction with colleagues;

• Changes in the standard of their work;

• Changes in the employee’s focus on tasks;

• Appearing tired, anxious or withdrawn, and less interested in tasks they previously enjoyed;

• Changes in appetite;

• Increase in smoking and drinking alcohol;

• Increase in sickness absences;

• Arriving late at work.

By being ‘in tune’ with its workforce, an employer can identify problems much earlier and offer support when it is often most needed.

Be aware, too, that certain employees may be more susceptible to stress not just because of their personal characteristics and their mental health history, but because of the type of role they carry out and the organisation they work for.

Some examples of role/work-related stressors identified by the HSE include:

• those dealing with customers or service users

• roles which involve dealing with complaints

• Using mobile equipment that makes the employee contactable out of normal working hours

• organisations which are subject to periodic external scrutiny or inspection of performance

• Pay rises linked to performance or attendance

• having a ‘macho’ approach to stress or mental health

• a recent increase in workload or reduction of the workforce.

Why Mental Health is a Key Priority Post-Lockdown

It is estimated that one in four of us will have mental health difficulties at some time in our lives and yet there is still stigma and shame associated with these experiences. It is estimated that over 6,000 people a year commit suicide.

We suspect that the effect of the Coronavirus pandemic is going to be around for a long time to come. We are already seeing the signs of increased referrals, and businesses and employers are facing huge challenges about how to manage some of the consequences for their employees. Many employees will have suffered bereavement and/or financial hardship. Some who have been furloughed may have lost their sense of purpose or will be feeling de-skilled. Many will have experienced degrees of social isolation, whilst others will have been coping with the stress of home-school children whilst maintaining their jobs while working from home.

It is likely that people will be emerging from lockdown with mental health problems that they have not experienced before. This may take some by surprise and they might struggle to recognise the signs themselves. They might start making more mistakes or their performance may decrease. Managers may think that the individual has lost interest or lacks dedication to their role. They may appear to be lacking concentration, forgetful, show poor timekeeping, or increased absence. They might become angry more easily and may be less enthusiastic about their work. In contrast, depression and anxiety can present in increased levels of energy which cannot be sustained. Someone might be trying to take on too much work which over time becomes overwhelming.

Supporting the Employee

A heavy workload and poor management style are often cited as the main causes of stress and it is crucial that an employee who feels affected has someone to talk to about their concerns.

By the same token, a manager must feel confident in broaching the subject of stress with a team member in the right way. This does not come naturally to all.

Training managers to spot signs of stress and how to handle employees in the right way is important to minimise stress and risk. Managers should be approachable and understanding and, wherever possible, proactive in tackling problems before they become too advanced. Obviously, they must avoid pressurising an employee to open up if they are reluctant to.

The first conversation between the employee and his or her manager is very important as it sets the tone for the organisation’s handling of the situation and, if conducted well, should encourage the employee to be full and frank about their mental health and the cause(s) of the problem. Getting to the root of the problem early, or at least having good information on which to base the next steps, makes everything much easier in the long run.

Where a manager is approached by an employee who says they are suffering from stress, the manager should:

• speak to the individual in a private space where they will not be disturbed;

• Thank the employee for speaking up;

• Be patient and open-minded;

• Try to identify the cause of the stress;

• Think about potential solutions.

In some situations, it may be advisable to take medical advice upon the employee’s condition. That may be the case particularly where the employee has been off work with stress-related symptoms, or where there is a chance that he or she is disabled. Do not forget that an employer may be under a legal duty to make reasonable adjustments for the employee if he or she will be considered to have a disability under the Equality Act and obtaining medical evidence can assist with the process.

Any adjustments needed will not necessarily be expensive and might be as simple as agreeing with the employee to alter his or her hours of work, allowing more breaks and perhaps letting the employee choose when to take their breaks. Sometimes, exploring the possibility of homeworking, part- time working as a temporary or permanent measure is all that is needed.

Other adjustments might relate to the role itself or to the working environment. For example, reviewing the employee’s workload and agreeing the duties he or she is capable of doing or looking to see if there is another role to which the employee might like to transfer could be helpful.

Additional Support


  • providing a mentor or buddy;
  • holding regular one-to- one meetings with the employee to discuss and prioritise tasks;
  • Regularly monitoring the employee’s progress. Agree a plan for checking in and to see if further changes might be needed;  
  • external counselling support;
  • if agreed changes are put in place, agreeing with the employee how best to let colleagues know about them (particularly if they will be impacted by the changes).

You will also need to bear in mind data protection responsibilities around handling information about an employee’s health.

What can you do to lower stress at work?


  • Adopt a zero-tolerance attitude - ensure that you are not fostering an environment open to harassment, discrimination or bullying in general. Some may think that as long as no one is complaining, the jokes, teasing and ‘office banter’ are fine, but they could be causing serious amounts of stress. In the workplace, employees must behave professionally. This will also reduce the risk of encountering a claim.
  • Management style – this can make or break a work culture. Consider using well trained managers rather than relying on existing managers who have learned their style from their own past managers. Calm, competent leaders who understand the needs of those under them tend to create a relaxed but productive work environment.
  • Clearly define workplace roles - research has found that knowing where your responsibilities begin and end can reduce stress. Sometimes managers are reluctant to do this, relying too much on the standard job description line of ‘other duties as required’. While that will always be necessary for emergencies, most tasks can normally be clearly defined.
  • Scheduling - If your employees work to a schedule, make an effort to set schedules as far in advance as possible, and be as consistent. This can help an employee arrange childcare for example, which, in itself, can be stressful. Home life and work life stress inevitably spill into each other. If someone is going through a rough patch at home, they are likely to bring that anxiety to work. Every employee has their own personal stressors, so explore all options.
  • Holidays - adopt a policy under which holidays are enforced rather than having a ‘use-it-or-lose-it holiday policy’. Workplace stress can still build up during holidays so try to ensure that when employees do take time off, it is actually time off -  i.e. inform workers that they should avoid answering emails and taking work calls if at all possible.  


If you would like any more information regarding this topic or wish to discuss any particular concerns you may have in this area, please do not hesitate to get in touch.


Amanda Jefferies

Director & Head of Employment

This entry was posted in Employment, News and posted on May 13, 2021