How to spot the signs and symptoms of stress at work – a guide for HR professionals

4 mins
Sellick  Partnership

By Sellick Partnership

Do you work in a stressful environment and feel worried that your employees may be anxious and considering a move? Are you a HR Manager concerned about how to minimise stress in the workplace? You are not alone as many HR departments agree with these challenges and this is an issue we regularly talk about with our clients. In this blog, our HR recruitment team discuss the importance of recognising stress in the workplace, and also pass on advice from our HR client base to discuss what employers and HR departments should be doing to ensure productivity and morale is not lost as a result.

Stress can be a debilitating condition for employees, and the ripple effects of it can lead to numerous downsides for a company, and specifically those working in HR roles. According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) in 2022/23 stress, depression or anxiety accounted for the majority of days lost due to work-related ill health at 17.1 million.

Due to this, it is now more important than ever for businesses and HR professionals to be aware of their responsibilities with regard to maintaining and supporting employee wellbeing. Without a wellbeing strategy in place, organisations stand to lose out on two fronts: time and resources spent on resolving situations caused by stress that could have been avoided in the first place; and the loss of talented and valuable employees to absenteeism or resignation.

Both of these instances can have a detrimental impact. Long-term, a company may lose out on business, as clients move away or they may simply find themselves short-staffed and struggling to fulfil the work required of them by customers or clients. None of which makes for good business sense.

In this article, we will examine the role of business leaders, HR Managers, and those in other HR roles, with regard to stress, how stress can be spotted, what to do when it is spotted, and why it is important to engage with employees on this issue.

What does stress look like at work? Signs and symptoms of stress at work

There are two behavioural components that HR Managers and line managers should be on the lookout for; changes in the way someone acts, and changes in the way they think or feel.

Absenteeism is the most obvious indicator of stress in the way someone acts, however business leaders should also be on the lookout for individuals who start being late for work, or who take longer and more frequent breaks during the day. This type of behaviour can often be dismissed as the staff member being lazy or uncommitted – yet this can be key signals for managers to intervene.

Heightened emotions, mood swings or more volatile moods can indicate stress, as can employees who withdraw themselves from their colleagues, exhibit a loss of motivation or speak of a lack of self-esteem. These signs can be harder to pick up, and so it is important for line managers to check in with all of those who work under them on a regular basis – such as an informal weekly catch up – in order to monitor for any changes in behaviour.

Stress can also impair an individual's ability to make decisions effectively. HR professionals should be aware of anyone seeming to be indecisive or hesitant in their actions. Difficulty in decision-making could indicate that an employee is feeling overwhelmed or anxious about work-related responsibilities.

Perhaps the most obvious sign would be a colleague using their sick leave or holiday entitlement as a coping mechanism for managing stress. While taking time off can be beneficial for mental health, frequent or prolonged absences may indicate that an individual is struggling to cope with work-related stressors.

Finally, HR professionals need to watch for signs of burnout, a severe form of chronic stress. Burnout is characterised by emotional exhaustion, cynicism, and a reduced sense of accomplishment. 

What can cause stress in the workplace?

Understanding the root causes of stress in the workplace is crucial for HR professionals to develop targeted interventions and support systems. Here are some common factors that can contribute to stress among employees:

  • Excessively high workloads are the most common cause of stress according to the HSE, with survey participants struggling to get through their work, and becoming increasingly weighed down as more and more work is given to them to complete. 
  • This can also lead to employees experiencing a poor work-life balance, long working hours, inflexible schedules, and blurred boundaries between work and home life can exacerbate this imbalance.
  • Linked to high workloads are the issues surrounding long working hours and employees being given tight or unrealistic deadlines. While the average employee works around 38 hours per week, this can skyrocket to upwards of 50 hours depending on the industry or the job position, impacting on family life, the time to relax, enjoy hobbies or exercise – all of which are important for good mental health.
  • Fears or concerns about their position and job security as well as the lack of opportunity for growth or development can be pain points for employees. Business leaders should take steps to ensure their staff members feel confident in the company, in their current role, and in their future.
  • Similarly, having unclear expectations about job roles, responsibilities, and performance expectations can create uncertainty and anxiety for employees. Lack of clarity regarding goals, priorities, and feedback can leave employees feeling unsure about their performance and contribution to the organisation.
  • Interpersonal relationships are also a significant cause of stress in the workplace – such as bullying, a toxic work culture, or cliquey, exclusionary behaviour as well as more explicit clashes in personality – especially if the poor relationship has developed across job levels. If combined with little or no support from peers or managers, employees can end up feeling isolated or neglected, which can lead to poor performance or preventable mistakes occurring. 
  • Feeling undervalued, unappreciated, or overlooked for their contributions may result in stress and demotivation. A lack of recognition, feedback, and opportunities for advancement can erode morale and job satisfaction.

How can HR prevent, address and alleviate stress?

Prevention is always best practice, so HR departments should implement a structured system of practical support that facilitates a culture focused on preventing stress. As a first point of call, all companies should undertake a risk assessment to identify likely causes of stress and take steps to address any flagged issues.

From here, those in HR roles should work with the wider senior management team to introduce and implement a wellbeing strategy or employee assistance programme (EAP) that is specific to the organisation. This should be communicated regularly and effectively to employees across all levels and departments so they know where to turn for assistance. In this way, organisations can hope to encourage employees to come forward before the situation escalates rather than needing a more lengthy or intensive strategy to resolve it – which can end up costing the business more.

The EAP could include wellbeing initiatives to encourage healthy eating, getting active, taking a full lunch hour, stopping smoking (if they do), and reducing alcohol and caffeine intake and so on. A workforce that is physically healthy often equates to a mentally healthy workplace. To maintain this culture, HR leaders should also work with managers to regularly monitor staff satisfaction levels, and implement improvements for any flagged issues.

Once an employee has come forward and raised that they are suffering from stress, then the HR department should arrange a private meeting with the employee to discuss their problems and what might be causing them in order to propose and agree on solutions as a way forward. These could include offering training to help the employee feel better equipped to perform their role, medical treatment or counselling.

Organisationally, HR may wish to work with the employee and relevant manager to redesign the job role more appropriately or move the employee into a different department.

Additionally, giving the employee greater control over how and when they deliver their work could help reduce stress. We are aware this may not be possible in every business, but going some way to try and allow your employees to enjoy a greater work-life balance would go a long way. For example, the introduction of flexi-time, job-sharing or the ability to work from home – incentives that have also been known to improve productivity and are frequently voted among the top desirable benefits of jobseekers. Finally, more in-depth support and interaction from line managers and peers should be offered to allow the employee to feel more engaged and connected with their colleagues.

This blog is intended as a resource to help HR professionals understand and spot stress in the workplace. Should you have any concerns about employees who are exhibiting symptoms, you may wish to signpost them to Mind or their GP for professional support and advice.

Alternatively, you can check out more handy resources in our Employers section.