The value of managing workplace stress

Published: 11 April 2024

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As April is Stress Awareness Month, Dawn Faulkner outlines how Faerfield have been thinking about what employers can do to help mitigate the impact of stress on individuals and organisations.

According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), stress occurs when “…the demands on an individual exceed the personal and social resources they are able to mobilise”. It can affect every aspect of an organisation, from absenteeism rates to interpersonal relationships: last year, stress and anxiety accounted for 49% of all work-related ill-health cases and 54% of all working days lost due to work-related ill-health. Around one in six employees are thought to suffer from stress in the workplace, and it’s vital to recognise the warning signs as early as possible, so that action can be taken before serious stress-related illness occur.

It’s important to distinguish between the kind of ‘bad days’ that everyone has from time to time, and a serious problem. Employers should be alert to colleagues who display characteristic changes over a period of time.  Individuals might experience physical, emotional or behavioural change, or sometimes a combination of all three. Examples could include extroverts becoming withdrawn; people becoming more accident-prone, or short-tempered; or a dramatic change in weight. The factors which indicate that a whole workforce is stressed include high staff turnover, increased absenteeism and sickness levels, the emergence of a long-hours work culture, employees not taking their full holiday entitlement, or generally lower than expected productivity and efficiency.

Stress is primarily a physical response. When stressed, the body thinks it is under attack and switches to ‘fight or flight’ mode, releasing a complex mix of hormones and chemicals such as adrenaline, cortisol and norepinephrine to prepare the body for physical action. This causes a number of reactions, from blood being diverted to muscles to shutting down unnecessary bodily functions such as digestion. Adrenaline can provide a boost of energy, as well as enabling us to focus our attention on a critical or high-pressured situation.

The problems start when our body goes into a state of stress in inappropriate situations. When blood flow is going only to the most important muscles needed to fight or flee, brain function is minimised. This can lead to an inability to ‘think straight’ – a significant hindrance at work. And remaining in a stressed state for long periods can be detrimental to our longer-term health. 

I am sure many readers will agree local government can be a stressful place to work. The HSE found that the main factors cited as causing work-related stress, depression or anxiety include the demands of the job, lack of control, lack of information and support, work relationships, and roles and responsibilities. From frontline social care teams with ever-growing caseloads, to those charged with managing funding that seems to have to stretch further each year, public servants regularly find themselves in exactly these kinds of situations.

There’s an additional aspect for those working in a democratically-led organisation. May’s elections will inevitably create a certain level of stress, not only for those standing as candidates, but also the officers and governance colleagues who need to ensure a smooth process, and who may also be planning for a potential change in administration. Restructure, transformation and change can sometimes have major consequences for individuals, and officers bear a heavy burden of implementing these changes in a way that’s inclusive, fair and transparent.

So, what should leaders be doing to counter stress in the workplace? How can we make the business case for changes that will make a lasting difference? Although it’s difficult to completely eliminate stressful situations, there are actions we can all take to prevent or reduce stress, as well as helping others to effectively deal with stress when it arises. A good place to start is understanding our duties under employment law. Organisations have a legal duty to ensure the health, safety and wellbeing of their employees, including mental health/stress. And it’s good for organisational performance too: when your team is happy, healthy and engaged in their work, they’re more likely to meet their own and organisational goals.

When people are stressed or burned out, their performance and relationships with others will suffer. Mental wellbeing amongst employees leads to increased productivity, a reduction in sickness and staff turnover, and it demonstrates that the organisation is a good, safe, and supportive place to work. Research by Deloitte has found that, on average, businesses achieve a £5 return for every £1 spent on wellbeing support.

Leaders should try to model healthy workplace behaviours that protect against stress: over time, the accumulation of these small consistent positive habits can make a real difference. The CIPD website provides a wide range of resources and research, and the wonderful Stress Management Society ( is a treasure trove of helpful hints and tips.

I hope this short article has helped to reduce your own stress, even if just for a while!

Dawn Faulkner is Partner at Faerfield Limited. Originally published in the Municipal Journal, 11 April 2024.


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