Work Related Stress – What’s changed over the last 20 years?

Stress is a major cause of sickness absence in the workplace and costs the UK economy over £5 billion a year.  With it being National Stress awareness month, I wanted to pose the question: What is stress? The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) defines stress as “the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demands placed on them.”

Work Related Stress – What’s changed over the last 20 years?

Cast your mind back to the late 1990’s; can you remember talking about stress at work or seeing companies even acknowledge the existence of stress in the workplace?  Probably not.

In this article, I want to tell you about my struggle to get the issues surrounding stress recognised in my workplace in the 1990’s, and what companies can do today to help their employees stay in work.

Raising Awareness

Back in 1998, I worked as the Health and Safety Officer for, the first online bank.  The bank was a call centre, with the large majority of staff dealing with customers over the phone, often dealing with complex issues, complaints and even angry and upset customers. Cases of stress were rising and there was a growing need to increase awareness of stress in the workplace, and how to deal with it effectively.

As the Health and Safety Officer at the time, I was asked to look at how we could raise the issues surrounding stress in the working environment, but without causing any unnecessary unrest.  I conducted extensive research on the topic of stress, so I fully understood what it was and how we could help people in the workplace.  After many months of hard work, I had drafted a comprehensive policy and a training package simply called “Stress Awareness”, covering a wide range of topics, from the definition of stress, to signs and symptoms shown by individuals as well as coping strategies for the company’s employees. The training reflected the policy and had a practical exercise called the Stress Tree Analyser.

The next step was to get the policy and the training signed off by the directors of the business.  With some initial concern about the title of the policy and training, I worked to ensure the policy was called Stress Awareness.  I then successfully rolled out the “Stress Awareness” policy and training module to all employees within And, over time, it became an important component of the business’s employee wellbeing ethos.

National News

Even as implemented this policy in 1998, they were ahead of their time, with not many companies following suit, even up to the present day. This always struck me as a shame, as there have been well-documented cases in the press regarding stress-related illnesses – Young v The Post Office (2002), which was due to a lack of training on a new job, and Dickins v O2 Ltd (2008), which was due to excessive hours worked and an excessive and demanding workload. Two cases that, if the employer had listened to the employee’s concerns, could have been avoided.

Roll forward 20 years, and today, what has changed in how we talk about and react to stress? Are companies still having the same battles I had back in 1998? Are we talking more about mental illness, or is it still a taboo subject?  It is clear to me that, just by reviewing the two case studies, there is still a lot companies can do to address and help employees. It is widely recognised that early intervention and effective management can have a positive effect for both employees and the businesses they work in.

How Employees Benefit:                                          

It is widely documented that improved employee wellbeing leads to better all-round general health and improved self-esteem, resulting in better levels of motivation, confidence and engagement in the workplace.

How Companies Benefit:

Companies implementing positive policies supporting wellbeing and reducing stress help them enjoy improved performance/productivity and generally lower staff turnover. This makes it easier to attract better candidates, and in turn, helps increase customer satisfaction. The benefits to the company’s brand image are also easy to quantify.

Personally, I have worked for companies that have implemented fantastic Mental Wellbeing Polices, and have done everything they can to raise awareness. I have also worked for other companies who insist on keeping their heads in the sand, not saying anything due to fear of reprisal.   There is also a lack of understanding within companies as to what legislative framework they have a duty of care under, to ensure measures which protect the health, safety, and welfare of its employees. This involves the identification and acknowledgement of mental health problems and appropriate support to employees experiencing mental health issues.  This will involve, where appropriate, a suitable risk assessment to understand these issues, as well as agreed actions to reduce the risks that are reasonably practicable.

Today, there is so much more that companies can offer their employees that go above and beyond simply conducting a risk assessment.  There are now courses for employees to become Mental Health First Aiders, providing staff with other people to talk to about their issues.  Companies can implement Health and Wellbeing programmes, which could include promoting exercise and nutritional advice, as well as lifestyle talks.  A lot of companies now offer Employee Assistance Programmes (EAP), an overarching preventative programme of information, advice and services available to help deal with events and issues in everyday work and personal life.

So, what should companies take from this article? 

Firstly, a recognition that stress is just one mental illness that employees may suffer from, and that there are many more. Stress could be the precursor to more serious illnesses. Secondly, an appreciation that the society we work in now is more pressurised and demanding than ever before, with employees feeling pressured to be connected and available almost 24/7. Thus, companies need to be more open to listening and helping with employees’ issues.  Implementing a Mental Wellbeing policy would show employees that they care about their wellbeing, and could lead the way for other companies to do the same.  Remember, without fit and healthy employees, both mentally and physically, our businesses cannot operate and thrive – act now before it’s too late.

About the Author 

Dawn Hemmings MSc MBA

Dawn Hemmings MSC MBA is the EHS Lead EMEA at A. Schulman Inc.

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