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What is stress and what are the common causes?


The current self-reported statistics (from the Labour Force Survey 2021–22) demonstrate what a substantial challenge mental health is for many organisations. With more than 914,000 cases of work-related stress, depression and anxiety, and an estimated 17 million working days lost, it is the number one cause of work-related ill health.

Contrary to popular belief (and often what is recorded on GP fitness to work certificates), stress is not a mental illness. Taking its most simple definition, stress is the experience of pressure as a result of an adverse force. The HSE defines work stress as “the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them”. 

Stress can be positive. We all need some degree of stress to be productive, effective individuals and it can be motivating. Parkinson’s Law, the adage that work fills the time allowed for its completion, is often true. It is only when the level of stress exceeds a person’s ability to cope with it that mental illness can result. Employers need to be mindful, not only of supporting members of staff (and the costs associated with this), but also the potential for a legal claim.   

Although mental illness is usually required for a negligence claim to be pursued, an adverse stress reaction can be a disability even if there is no medical diagnosis. As long as an individual has an impairment which has a substantial and long-term (lasting or likely to last a year or more) adverse impact on their ability to do normal daily activities, then this is sufficient to trigger the legal duties to prevent disability discrimination under the Equality Act 2010. 

So how do we know what level of stress is enough, but not too much? The difficulty is that we all respond differently to stress. What one person finds anxiety-inducing may be not the least bit challenging for someone else. Our resilience to stress also changes over time and is influenced by all sort of factors – such as our health, our relationships with others, our past experiences and even the time of year. 

The HSE Management Standards identify six factors that influence stress at work:

Demands – the expectation placed on the individual and whether it is achievable

Control – the ability to control the way a person works, when they do it and what they do

Support – the extent to which an individual is supported in their role by colleagues or technology

Relationships – the interaction between individuals and the existence of bullying or toxic culture

Role – the nature of the job and the activities involved

Change – the way in which change is managed and extent to which employees are consulted or involved.

These factors are often interrelated and cannot be considered in isolation. Excessive demands or changes at work may mean that employees feel they are not being properly supported and this negatively affects their relationships with management. From a claims perspective, demands, support and relationships tend to be the most common issues cited in stress at work claims.

The way in which excessive stress manifests also differs between individuals. Anxiety and depression are commonly diagnosed, but some individuals will experience physical symptoms. Somatoform disorders can cause gastrointestinal symptoms, neurological symptoms, and pain in response to mental distress, which can make it hard to identify that it is a psychiatric condition.  

Burnout is an increasingly commonly used phrase but, as with stress, this is not a clinically well-recognised mental illness. The World Health Organisation has declared that burnout is an ‘occupational phenomenon’ caused by excessive work, poor work-life balance, and exhaustion, but is not a diagnosable disease. 

To add further complication to an already complex picture, mental illness can also be caused by a lack of stress. The concepts of ‘bore-out’ – where a person is not challenged or is underutilised at work – and ‘brown-out’ – where a person feels a lack of purpose and a lack of meaning in their role resulting in disengagement and disillusionment, are gaining increasing recognition. Both tend to lead to ‘presenteeism’ – where workers continue to attend work, but lack interest, motivation, and may be more susceptible to accidents or errors at work because they are inattentive. This is also often overlooked as a cause for concern within an organisation because it can be more difficult to identify and address. The member of staff may not appear to be in a state of crisis and may be perceived as simply lazy.

Trying to achieve a perfect state in which employees experience just the right level of stress to be happy, productive and motivated individuals, but not so much that it exceeds their ability to cope, is an almost impossible and inevitably nebulous goal.

So how do you ensure that you and everyone you work with is experiencing just the right amount of stress? The simple answer is that you can’t and no one expects you to (not even the courts). However, employers are expected to be aware and turn their minds to the issue of stress, putting in place reasonable and appropriate steps for addressing it. How do you go about that? Check out tomorrow’s article on "Managing stress generally in a workforce”.


Vanessa Latham

Vanessa Latham
Employment and Discrimination


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