Dealing with stress at work


Stress at work is a significant issue for many RMT members as they face cuts to services, threats to job security and increases in the cost of living.

HSE defines stress as ‘the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them’. Workers feel stress when they cannot cope with pressures and other issues. Although stress itself is not a disease, it is recognised that excessive or prolonged stress can be a cause of mental and physical illness.

There is some overlap between work-related stress and mental ill-health. However, the key difference is the causes and the way in which they are treated.They may share similar symptoms – work-related stress can cause mental ill-health or aggravate and become entangled with an existing mental ill-health problem; but they can also exist independently.


There are no specific regulations aimed at controlling stress, but employers do have legal duties, including under the HASWA, section 9, general duties of employers, and under the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regs in relation to control of risks at work. The HSE states that “work-related stress should be treated as any other workplace hazard; it is subject to the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 and therefore a risk assessment is required”.

In the absence of specific legislation on stress, there are the HSE Management Standards: The TUC in conjunction with HSE has produced this joint guidance on preventing stress using the standards:

The Office of Rail and Road, as the Health and Safety regulator for the railway industry, has confirmed that it will follow the Stress Management Standards.

The Management Standards group the principal causes of work-related stress into six key areas:

Demands – includes issues like workloads, work patterns and the work environment

Control – how much say the person has in the way they do their work
Support – includes the encouragement, sponsorship and resources provided by

the organisation, line management and colleagues

Relationships – includes promoting positive working to avoid conflict and dealing with unacceptable behaviou

Dealing With Stress At Work

Role – whether people understand their role within the organisation and whether the organisation ensures that the person does not have conflicting roles

Change – how organisational change (large or small) is managed and communicated in the organisation.

Employers should have a thorough understanding of how the above apply in their organisation - and managers at all levels should be aware of the management standards and understand how they apply in practice.

If an employer introduces support for people with stress-related conditions instead of prevention measures, it should be insisted that they use the HSE management standards, as the standards adopt an “organisational” as opposed to an “individual” approach to tacking stress and to issues relating to job demands and job quality.

As a Health and Safety representative you can help members to avoid stress in the workplace by:

Referring your employer to the HSE Management Standards for managing stress in the workplace using a step-by-step risk assessment approach
Reviewing your employer’s stress policies and, if there is no policy in place, work with your employer to implement a policy to protect employees Ensuring that your employer considers the risks to employees by carrying out risk assessments

Encouraging your employer to tackle risks at source – if there are issues creating stress for employees, try to resolve these with the employer in the first instance
Making sure that the employer takes account of the individual – some individuals may be more vulnerable to stress so ensure that any risk assessment highlights this

The employer must remove hazards if possible – where it is possible to work collectively to remove problems that are causing stress, aim to do so If the risk remains, ensure that your employer controls the risk/exposure and protects the employee.

cannot avoid stress in the workplace, or you are unable to resolve the issue:

Advise members to explain to employers the damage that is being done to their health. If an employer is not put on notice of the risk of an employee being at risk of suffering from a “recognised psychiatric condition” as distinct from stress and anxiety, then a claim cannot succeed

Ensure that your member seeks advice and support from their GP and/or Occupational Health Department.If employees have access to an independent Occupational Health Dept members should be encouraged to use it.

The stress risk assessment must meet the legal standard of ‘suitable and sufficient’, and safety reps should ask for it to be revised if it does not meet this standard.

If stress cannot be avoided in the workplace, or safety reps are unable to resolve the issue, advise members to explain to employers the damage that is being done to their health and encourage members to keep a written record of any problems and send this to management, so that employers cannot say they were not aware.

If stress issues are widespread across the area:

  • conduct a stress survey. It is best to do this jointly with the employer as they may then be more likely to take heed of the results, but, if not possible, then conduct a trade union survey

  • Place stress as a standing item on the agenda of Safety Committees and ensure an effective stress control policy is in place. Use discussions in the committee to ensure the policy and its effectiveness are monitored.


    Managers should use return to work interviews to consider the issue of stress and, if this is indicated on a medical certificate, consider a formal stress risk assessment before a return to work takes place.

    Raise and record instances of stress and stress-related health symptoms (including on sick certificates).

    At safety committee meetings analyse sickness and absence data, referrals to Occupational Health and exit interviews, and stress audits/stress survey results for indications of stress.