Blood pressure testing


Stress: an introduction

Stress is one of the biggest causes of health problems in the workplace. In general terms, stress is a reaction to pressure or harassment at work.

The Health and Safety Executive’s (HSE) definition of stress is: “The reaction people have to excessive demands or pressures, arising when people try to cope with tasks, responsibilities or other types of pressure connected with their job, but find difficulty, strain or worry in doing so.”

Stress can be difficult to identify in an organisation as employees may not admit to feeling stressed.

What causes stress?

Stress can be caused by a number of factors including:

  • long hours and shift work;
  • lack of control or insecurity;
  • lack of job satisfaction, boredom or isolation;
  • fear of violence, bullying or harassment;
  • bad relations with other work colleagues;
  • problems with the working environment (such as noise, temperature, overcrowding and poor facilities);
  • low pay.

What illnesses can be caused by stress?

Stress can cause mental and physical illnesses such as anxiety, depression, altered appetite, headaches, backache or difficulty in sleeping. Over time, heart disease or ulcers may also develop.

People may also try to reduce the symptoms of stress with alcohol, cigarettes, tranquillisers or other drugs, which can lead to further, more serious health issues.

Read more about alcohol, drugs and substance abuse.

What are the laws on stress in the workplace?

The law says that employers are responsible for the safety of their employees while they are at work, and this includes stress. Certain levels of stress are normal and may even be helpful. However excessive levels of stress can be destructive and lead to psychiatric injury for which the employer may be liable for a claim in a county court, or Sheriff Court in Scotland, for negligence depending upon the circumstances.

Once an employer knows that a worker is or may be at risk of injury, they must investigate the problem and find out what they can do to resolve it.

Under the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 (in Northern Ireland under the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2000), your employer must assess the nature and scale of health risks at work (including stress).

The Working Time Regulations place limits on the length of the working week and force all employers to give employees paid holiday.

In certain circumstances a claim for stress from harassment may form part of a claim to the employment tribunal in respect of age, disability, gender reassignment, race, religion or belief, sex or sexual orientation discrimination under the Equality Act (or, in Northern Ireland, under various pieces of equality legislation addressing such protected characteristics including political opinion). Where a worker has become disabled due to the stress that they have suffered, the Equality Act (the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 in Northern Ireland) requires employers to make reasonable adjustments to their work or workplace.

Most public sector organisations are covered by the Public Sector Equality Duty contained in the Equality Act 2010 (in Northern Ireland section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act) which aims to make sure employers pay ”due regard“ to the promotion of equality.  This includes disabled people – some of whom may be more prone to stress – at work.

If you are affected by any of the symptoms of stress such as long working hours or unreasonable workloads, contact your UNISON rep immediately.

How should your employer deal with stress in the workplace?

Every employer should conduct a risk assessment in the workplace. The risk assessment should include stress as a potential hazard. If stress is identified as a hazard then appropriate control measures may need to be introduced.

Next steps for UNISON reps

As a rep or a safety rep, you can help change the culture at work to encourage people to talk about stress.

Make sure that your employer has included stress in their risk assessment. You can also organise focus groups with members to discuss how stress might be an issue in the workplace.

The results of this focus group can be used to demonstrate to the employer that stress is an issue in your workplace and the results can help to inform the risk assessment and the way your employer chooses to deal with stress in the workplace.

Key facts
  • Work-related stress is one of the biggest health hazards in the workplace. Stress is difficult to identify, but it can be caused by excessive workloads or pressure placed on employees.
  • Work-related stress is a reaction to pressure or harassment at work or other working conditions.
  • Employers are responsible for the general safety and wellbeing of their employees while they are at work.
  • The law require employers to carry out risk assessments to identify hazards, including stress.



  • Can I take time off work for stress?

    If you feel unwell as a result of the pressures at work, visit your GP as soon as possible. Your GP will tell you how best to deal with your stress and how much time to take off work, if necessary.

  • I’m feeling stressed at work. What should I do?

    Speak to your safety rep about how you feel or call UNISON direct. Your rep can help you find ways to reduce stress and help you decide how best to approach your employer.

  • What can my employer do if I’m feeling stressed?

    If your employer knows that you are suffering from stress, they should do what they can to reduce your workload and/or other pressures.

  • Where can I get help with dealing with stress?

    If you are suffering from stress, or feel unwell, speak to your GP immediately. Speak to your boss or to your UNISON rep if you feel your workload is unreasonably high, if you feel you are under pressure, or if you are being harassed or otherwise discriminated against in any way.