Managing Stress

04 July 2018

The rapid pace of life today, coupled with the ever changing environment in which we live and work increases the levels of pressure and stress we all face.

A certain amount of stress can often improve our performance; think of exam time or an athlete in a race, but it must be at an acceptable level and should only continue over a short period of time.  Research has shown that high levels of stress over prolonged periods, particularly work related stress, will damage a person’s health and adversely affect their ability to perform in the workplace.  Work related stress is linked to high levels of sick leave and staff turnover and is responsible for greater numbers of workplace errors.  All of these can impact an organisation’s productivity, reputation and profitability.

Health and safety legislation focuses on prevention of accidents and ill health by imposing a duty on all employers to ensure the safety, health and welfare of their employees and volunteers.  What this means is that as an employer, you are required to implement strategies to prevent your employees and volunteers from being injured or becoming ill because of their work.  You must therefore carry out risk assessments, including assessments for stress, and put in place measures to control any issues identified by the risk assessments.  If you are advised that an employee/volunteer is suffering from stress you are obliged to investigate and address this.

There are significant benefits to managing stress in a business; including a more contented workforce, lower absenteeism, reduced accident rates, lower costs, higher productivity, greater profitability and an enhanced reputation as an employer of choice.

What is Stress

According to the World Health Organisation, work-related stress is the response people may have when presented with work demands and pressures that are not matched to their knowledge and abilities and which challenge their ability to cope.

What causes Stress

Much of the stress we feel today comes from events in our personal lives and this may affect our ability to cope with work demands or deadlines.  Causes of this stress can include;

  • Illness or death in a family
  • Marital breakdown
  • Financial difficulties
  • Indebtedness
  • Unemployment

However, work may be the cause of a person’s stress or can often be responsible for making it worse.  Stress can occur in a wide range of circumstances at work but it is often made worse when employees have little control over the work processes and believe they have little support from their supervisors and colleagues.  Work-related stress can be caused or made worse by a variety of issues, including;

  • Change or promotion
  • Bullying or conflict with colleagues or superiors
  • Inadequate training
  • Poorly designed systems of work or lack of control over work
  • Demanding workloads and unrealistic deadlines

Effects of Stress

Stress is an internal mechanism, although it can be caused by internal or external factors and each individual will have different tolerances, abilities and mechanisms for coping with it.  Some have very low tolerance levels and can be easily affected by environments with low levels of stress.  Then there are those persons who can tolerate high levels of stress, even thriving on stressful situations or events.

However, studies have shown that high levels of stress over prolonged periods, including work related stress, will have an adverse effect on a person’s health and wellbeing.  This can lead to poor health outcomes such as cardiovascular disease, headaches, stomach upsets and other unexplained illnesses, as well as anxiety and depression.  Stress can also lead to heavy smoking, abuse of alcohol or drugs, gambling, difficulty sleeping, personality changes (irritable or easily upset) and overeating or skipping meals.  

Stress will also damage business performance.

Identifying Stress

Stress in the workplace can sometimes be difficult to identify, but some common indicators can include;

  • Unusual or uncharacteristic behaviour, such as withdrawal or unexplained irritability or sudden outbursts of anger or tearfulness.
  • High levels of staff turnover
  • High levels of absenteeism
  • High levels of illness and injury
  • Large numbers of errors
  • Deadlines regularly missed
  • Low productivity
  • Customer complaints

Case Law

Following the case of Sutherland v Hatton (2002) in which four claimants successfully sued their employers for stress in the UK Courts, 16 “Golden Rules”, the Hatton Principles, were laid down in the judgement, that employers must follow to combat workplace stress.  Although the judgement is not binding on the Irish Courts, the Hatton Principles have been accepted as useful and have persuasive influence on the Irish Courts in stress cases that come before them, for example; McGrath v Trintech (2004).  Because of the importance of these Principles in combatting workplace stress, employers need to be aware of them and bear them in mind when drawing up plans to manage stress in the workplace.  The Hatton Principles are;

1. There are no special control mechanisms applying to claims for psychiatric (or physical) illness or injury arising from the stress of doing the work the employee is required to do. The ordinary principles of employer's liability apply.

2. The threshold question is whether this kind of harm to this particular employee was reasonably foreseeable: this has two components (a) an injury to health (as distinct from occupational stress) which (b) is attributable to stress at work (as distinct from other factors)

3. Foreseeability depends upon what the employer knows (or ought reasonably to know) about the individual employee. Because of the nature of mental disorder, it is harder to foresee than physical injury, but may be easier to foresee in a known individual than in the population at large. An employer is usually entitled to assume that the employee can withstand the normal pressures of the job unless he knows of some particular problem or vulnerability.

4. The test is the same whatever the employment: there are no occupations which should be regarded as intrinsically dangerous to mental health.

5. Factors likely to be relevant in answering the threshold question include:

(a) The nature and extent of the work done by the employee. Is the workload much more than is normal for the particular job? Is the work particularly intellectually or emotionally demanding for this employee? Are demands being made of this employee unreasonable when compared with the demands made of others in the same or comparable jobs? Or are there signs that others doing this job are suffering harmful levels of stress? Is there an abnormal level of sickness or absenteeism in the same job or the same department?

(b) Signs from the employee of impending harm to health. Has he a particular problem or vulnerability? Has he already suffered from illness attributable to stress at work? Have there recently been frequent or prolonged absences which are uncharacteristic of him? Is there reason to think that these are attributable to stress at work, for example because of complaints or warnings from him or others?

6. The employer is generally entitled to take what he is told by his employee at face value, unless he has good reason to think to the contrary. He does not generally have to make searching enquiries of the employee or seek permission to make further enquiries of his medical advisers.

7. To trigger a duty to take steps, the indications of impending harm to health arising from stress at work must be plain enough for any reasonable employer to realise that he should do something about it.

8. The employer is only in breach of duty if he has failed to take the steps which are reasonable in the circumstances, bearing in mind the magnitude of the risk of harm occurring, the gravity of the harm which may occur, the costs and practicability of preventing it, and the justifications for running the risk.

9.The size and scope of the employer's operation, its resources and the demands it faces are relevant in deciding what is reasonable; these include the interests of other employees and the need to treat them fairly, for example, in any redistribution of duties.

10. An employer can only reasonably be expected to take steps which are likely to do some good: the court is likely to need expert evidence on this.

11. An employer who offers a confidential advice service, with referral to appropriate counselling or treatment services, is unlikely to be found in breach of duty.

12. If the only reasonable and effective step would have been to dismiss or demote the employee, the employer will not be in breach of duty in allowing a willing employee to continue in the job.

13. In all cases, therefore, it is necessary to identify the steps which the employer both could and should have taken before finding him in breach of his duty of care.

14. The claimant must show that that breach of duty has caused or materially contributed to the harm suffered. It is not enough to show that occupational stress has caused the harm.

15. Where the harm suffered has more than one cause, the employer should only pay for that proportion of the harm suffered which is attributable to his wrongdoing, unless the harm is truly indivisible. It is for the defendant to raise the question of apportionment.

16. The assessment of damages will take account of any pre-existing disorder or vulnerability and of the chance that the claimant would have succumbed to a stress related disorder in any event. 


The employer’s liability section of the Ecclesiastical Insurance policy provides cover for bodily injury (including psychological injury) claims arising out of workplace stress where the Insured is legally liable for the resulting injury.  However, not all insurers include this cover under their standard liability policies.

Managing Stress

The Health & Safety Authority (HSA) have developed an audit tool for the identification and management of stress in the workplace. Known as Work Positive, this can be accessed through the HSA website;  The areas covered in the audit tool are;

  • The demands of the job, including workload, work patterns and the work environment
  • The amount of control an individual has over the way they do their work
  • The support employees have in terms of resources and encouragement from managers and colleagues
  • How well relationships work, including the prevention of harassment and bullying and the promotion of positive working
  • How clear employees are about their role and what is required of them
  • How effectively change is managed and communicated.

Under health and safety legislation, all employers are required, among other things, to provide a safe place to work for their employees/volunteers and to prevent any improper conduct or behaviour which may put the safety and/or health of employees/volunteers at risk.  Clearly, this includes an obligation on employers to manage stress and there are a number of interventions that are generally used by organisations to achieve this

Primary Interventions

This approach focusses on preventing stress occurring.  It is typically achieved through the use of risk assessments of the work environment and work practices in order to identify and then eliminate or minimise the sources of stress.  Examples could include; designing how the work process is carried out, what is carried out and who carries it out.

Secondary Interventions

The focus of secondary interventions is on the employee/volunteer during their time with the organisation and includes training for the job, health and safety training and management support for the employee/volunteer.  It concentrates on responding to stressful situations to enable the ability to cope and reduce harmful effects through the introduction of training.

Tertiary Interventions

These deal with the impact of stress and assist in the recovery and rehabilitation process.  They include counselling, occupational health support, employee assistance programmes and return to work programmes.

Organisational Interventions

They look to identify stress related problems across the organisation to determine if there are any general sources of stress affecting the whole workforce or if there are particular areas of concern in isolated locations within the organisation, for example by monitoring in particular teams or departments.

Manager or Team Leader Interventions

These look at how stress can be prevented within a team.

Stress Risk Assessment

  • Identify the Hazards, ie what in the workplace could cause stress.  Follow the areas covered in Work Positive to identify how they apply to your workplace and ensure this information is communicated to all employees/volunteers so they understand the approach being introduced.
  • Assess and evaluate the Risks.  Decide who may be harmed by stress and how.  Sources of data could include annual staff surveys, stress indicator tools, sickness absence records, staff turnover rates, exit interviews, number of referrals to Occupational Health and information from other staff forums.  Evaluate this data to identify trends or stress hotspots in your organisation, considering the likelihood of occurrence and the severity of injury/damage.
  • Record your findings and develop and agree an action plan which should be communicated to all employees/volunteers.
  • Implement Controls to prevent, minimise or eliminate the Hazards.  These could include regular 1:1 meetings between employees/volunteers and line managers, training managers in stress management techniques, promoting respect for the dignity of each employee/volunteer, the use of themed well-being weeks, counselling and employee assistance programmes.
  • Monitor and review to ensure the interventions and controls identified and implemented are achieving the desired improvements and that the process is repeated at appropriate intervals to ensure continuous improvement and maintain engagement with your employees/volunteers.

Employees/Volunteers returning from Stress Leave

As an employer, you need to pay particular attention to employees/volunteers returning to work following stress leave.  You will need to consider the following;

Consult with Occupational Health personnel for advice and guidance on any requirement for a phased return to work by the employee/volunteer.

Reflect on the work environment the employee/volunteer is being returned to.  Putting the person back into the environment that was responsible for the stress initially could cause the stress to recur.  In such circumstances, you as the employer, will be deemed to have known the employee/volunteer is more prone to suffer stress in the same environment and you could be held responsible. 

Further Information

Further information on work related stress is available from;

The Health & Safety Authority website;
The Health & Safety Executive website;
The Chartered Institute of Personnel & Development Ireland;

Stress is manageable and it is economically viable to make adjustments to the work environment to support employees/volunteers who are suffering from work related stress. Failure to do so could result in you as an employer ultimately being held liable for illnesses, accidents and injuries. This could leave you open to prosecution and fines, as well as having costly personal injury claims being brought against you