Chelmsford TUC

In Your Workplace

The Reality of Stress

Did you know that mental health problems arising from undue work-related stress are on the increase?

  • That amongst the long-term unemployed, those with a history of severe mental illness constitute the majority?
  • Mental illness has more stigma attached to it than almost any form of criminal background?
  • Absence from work caused by various forms of mental illness places an enormous financial cost on the UK economy?

On this page we have the following sections:

General Information

People will go to extraordinary lengths to avoid admission of having experienced depression, nervous breakdowns or any other form of mental illness? Mental illness is denied and many of those who experience it will use the pretext of physical illness to explain absence from work (bad back, ME etc)

  • All forms of mental illness are eminently treatable, even though there may be no exact cure for some types (such as various forms of psychosis).
  • An illness such as ‘schizophrenia’ has nothing at all do with the idea of a ‘split personality’. It is a pejorative term used by the tabloid press to sensationalize newspaper articles and one that is being rejected by psychiatrists as a means of describing psychotic illnesses.
  • Britain has the highest prison population in Europe and about 60% of all prisoners should be under the care of mental health services rather than being incarcerated in our prisons.
  • Alcohol-related violence is far more common than that caused by persons who have mental health problems.

Good News?

  • Care in the community has some enlightened aspects to it. For instance, many (but not most) of those with experience of mental ill health are able to participate in therapeutic recuperative care programmes outside of an institutional setting.
  • The Government has introduced the Disability Discrimination Act, which requires employers to recognise staff mental health needs. There is also a requirement to ensure that experience of mental ill health is not a barrier to gaining employment (which, in fact, it is).

What is the Government doing?

  • Not enough! This government claims that more money is being poured into the mental health cause than ever before, but there is evidence to the contrary. In Essex, there has been closure of a valuable rehabilitation centre in Witham; the acute psychiatric ward at Broomfield Hospital (The Linden Centre) is in crisis through under-staffing
  • It has done nothing to curtail the serious staffing problems in mental health services across the UK. As with many other aspects of the public sector, low pay and poor morale deter people from seeking a career in mental health work.
  • In most aspects of government policy, New Labour is basically following, and extending, Thatcherite policies. For example, the new Mental Health Bill is draconian in the sense that it seeks to curtail rights to proper choice of treatment and replace those with compulsory powers of detention - even though a person may have committed no crime and may not even be diagnosed as suffering from any particular form of mental illness. In other words, it is doffing its cap to those aspects of the tabloid press that conflate mental illness with dangerous personality disorders.

For more on this, go to Rethink

What can you do?

  • Familiarise yourself with the Disability Discrimination Act and request that your employer conducts a Health and Safety Policy in line with this. For stricter guidelines, see the Working Minds website
  • Ascertain the extent to which managers at all levels in the workplace are trained in mental health awareness. Suggest that staff development programmes offer insights on mental illness to all employees.
  • For supporting colleagues who may have mental health problems, there are the following local contacts:
  • Chelmsford and Mid-Essex Rethink Carers’ Support Group 01245 250375 or email Peter Ruane
  • NERIL (North Essex Resource Information Line for Mental Health) 08450 900 909

Fortunately, trade unions are tackling stress in the workplace seriously. This is not surprising as recent research shows that seven out of ten adults in the UK have experienced stress at work - up from six out of ten in 1999. Indeed, stress is now accepted as one of the major health hazards faced by employees, with nearly six million days being lost every year due to its effects. The cost to society for sickness absence for stress and mental disorders is in excess of £5 billion a year.

How Stress Hurts

The symptoms of stress can include indecision, anxiety, depression, altered appetite, changes in weight, headache, backache, skin rashes and difficulty in sleeping. They may lead to heart disease and ulcers. As stress levels increase so does the consumption of alcohol, cigarettes and tranquillisers.

What Causes Stress

Long working hours and shift work can lead to disruption of family and social life, fatigue, and increased accident risks as concentration and attention fail. Overtime and low pay often work together to cause stress.

Shift workers are at risk from:

  • disturbed and inadequate sleep
  • disturbed family and social life
  • dependence on sleeping pills and tranquillisers
  • fatigue
  • depression and neuroses.

A major reason for stress is that the employee does not have control of his/her working environment. This applies at all levels of responsibility but the main burden of work-related stress is among shop floor workers, who have little say over their job.

Stress can be caused through the lack of job satisfaction because:

  • work pressure is too great
  • training has often been inadequate
  • the job involves no creative thought or responsibility
  • there is no pride in the work
  • the work does not seem useful.

For many workers one of the largest sources of stress is rising insecurity and fear of unemployment.

Violence causes stress. The Health and Safety Executive describes violence as "Any incident in which a person is abused, threatened or assaulted in circumstances relating to their work".

While there is no specific mention of violence in the Health and Safety at Work Act or the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations, the general duties on employers can be applied to dealing with violence and aggression.

The HSE’s "Violence to staff - a basis for assessment and prevention" sets out a procedure which will enables safety reps to manage this problem effectively and to provide a framework for investigating the risk of violence at work.

Bullying. For those bullied stress and ill health become a daily occurrence. Failure by employers to deal with bullying can cost time, lost efficiency and production. The staff affected by bullying have a low morale, resulting in lost incentive, reduced work output and quality of service. The HSE’s guidance on bullying is that "employees cannot easily cope with inconsistency, indifference or bullying; employers must look at their management styles; and employers should ensure that people are treated fairly and that bullying and harassment of those who seem not to ’fit in’ is not allowed."

The guide goes on to say that employers should have effective systems for dealing with interpersonal conflict, bullying and racial or sexual harassment, which should include an agreed procedure and proper investigation of complaints.

Preventing Stress

Safety reps need to negotiate with their employer a stress prevention policy, preferably as part of the firm’s health and safety policy.

An effective policy on stress should:

  • recognise that stress is a health and safety issue
  • recognise that stress is about the organisation of work
  • be jointly developed and agreed with unions
  • have a commitment from the very top
  • guarantee a "blame free" approach"
  • apply to everyone.

Its objective should be:

  • to prevent stress by identifying the causes of workplace stress and eliminating them
  • to recognise and deal with stress related problems as they arise by educating employees about stress and encouraging participation and co-operative working
  • to rehabilitate employees suffering stress through the provision of independent confidential counselling.

The policy should contain agreed arrangements for joint monitoring and review to assess its effectiveness.

The Risk Assessment

Risk assessment is the key to the implementation of a stress at work policy, as well as the health and safety policy. Workplace unions can organise a number of activities which will give them the information they need to tackle their employers about the risks and causes of occupational stress:

  • a special investigation, under the Safety Representative and Safety Committee Regulations 1977, to check on all the potential physical sources of stress
  • a survey of members using a questionnaire or through organised discussions between members and their safety reps to determine:

(i) attitudes to job content and work organisation

(ii) feelings of ill health

(iii) increases in smoking etc.

  • an investigation of sickness absence figures and causes of death of people while working or who have retired from work in the last two years.


It is important to involve trade union members and listen to their problems. Make them aware that stress is a shared problem which can be tackled through the union. Discussing stress issues within the union will also help to persuade management that there is a problem, and by implementing the solutions suggested, workers will have an immediate feeling of having regained some control over their working environment.

Unions should ensure that members suffering from stress are represented and cared for. Individual grievances must be dealt with effectively and special arrangements negotiated to protect their needs.


"Tackling stress at work A UNISON/TUC guide for safety reps and union negotiators"

Further Reading:

"Stress at Work: A guide for Employers" Health and Safety Executive

"Help on Work-related Stress - a short guide" Health and Safety Executive

"ABC of Mental Health in the Workplace" Department of Health

"Tackling Stress in the Banking and Insurance Industry" TGWU/BIFU