Staff guidance on the prevention and management of work-related stress

The University of Oxford recognises that work-related stress is a serious issue and wishes to maintain a positive and supportive working environment for all its staff. Stress can be caused by a variety of factors - which may include work-related factors or personal issues outside the workplace, singly or in combination.

This guidance aims to help you to identify where stress may be a problem, and to give an overview of the support that is available through the University to help staff who may be affected adversely by stress.

What is work-related stress?

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) draws a clear distinction between pressure, which can be a motivating factor, and stress, which can occur when pressure becomes excessive. The University adopts the HSE's definition of stress: "Stress is the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressure or other types of demand placed on them".

Stress is a state, not an illness, and where stress lasts for only a short time there is usually no lasting effect. However, if the stress is sustained over a long period it can have a significant impact on physical and mental health. Research has linked stress to anxiety, depression, heart disease, back pain, headaches, gastrointestinal disturbances, and alcohol and drug dependency. Each individual will have a different level of tolerance in relation to the pressures they are exposed to, as well as a differing range of potential stress factors, not all of which will be work-related.

How can I prevent stress affecting me?

Stress arises where pressures build up beyond an individual's ability to cope. It is important, therefore, to take an active role in recognising and managing potential stressors that might affect you. The University supports a variety of wellbeing and work-life balance initiatives such as generous holidays, family-friendly policies, sports facilities, and flexible working policies. You are encouraged to:

  • make sure that you plan and take sufficient breaks, both during the working day, and in planning and using your annual leave entitlement;
  • make use of the training available through the University to ensure you have all the skills you need to help you fulfil your role;
  • ensure you know about all the support available through the University;
  • make sure you don't let stress build up: speak to your line manager or supervisor at an early stage if you feel that you are starting to be adversely affected by stress.

Information and open discussion are key to preventing stress. The University's Occupational Health website provides a wide-range of information and sources of support which you are encouraged to consider in particular if:

  • you are interested in finding out more about stress;
  • you would like to take active steps to prevent stress from affecting you; or
  • you are experiencing temporary, or mild problems which you would like to manage yourself.

How should stress be managed?

The Health and Safety Executive's current guidance emphasises that effective stress management does not have to be a separate activity, but should be part of everyday management, and behaviour in the workplace.

"Many organisations are already doing more than they realise to tackle stress simply by managing their staff well. What is important is that the organisation and its employees and their representatives recognise where there is room for improvement and take action by working together." (Real Solutions, Real People, a managers' guide to tackling work-related stress. HSE, 2003).

Guidance has been provided to line managers and supervisors.

What should I do if I feel I'm being adversely affected by stress?

Early intervention and action will reduce the likelihood of you being adversely affected by stress, and will increase the likelihood of a successful outcome for both you and the department.

If you feel that you may be at risk of work-related stress it is very important that you alert your line-manager, or another appropriate person, as early as possible, so that you can start to work together on an action plan to reduce the risk to you. If you don't feel able to speak to your line manager, examples of other appropriate people might include your departmental administrator, HR manager, the Occupational Health Service, a departmental harassment adviser, a union/staff representative, or a colleague who may be able to speak on your behalf. The Occupational Health Service website includes a 'checklist to aid discussion'  which you can use help you to think through the causes of the stress and what might help you.

Alternatively, you may wish to speak to your General Practitioner (GP) in the first instance.

What if the stress is caused by personal issues?

If you are facing problems in your personal life these may affect your ability to work effectively, and in such cases it is helpful for your line-manager to be made aware of the situation.

Whilst of course you are not obliged to disclose details of personal problems with your manager or supervisor, once they are aware that you are experiencing stress they will be able to discuss what help can be made available to you (such as counselling services, compassionate leave, temporary adjustments to duties, etc) to enable you to work effectively.

You may find that the information and guidance available through the University's Occupational Health Service website programme will be of assistance in helping you to cope with personal issues as well as work-related issues.

What happens if the stress is work-related?

If you think you are at risk of work-related stress you should alert your line manager or supervisor as soon as possible, and in confidence. They will arrange to meet you to discuss your concerns, following the management guidance and using the approach recommended by the Health and Safety Executive. Your line manager or supervisor may use the checklist based on the HSE management standards, which sets out practical steps to address workplace stress. You may find it helpful to look at this checklist before you meet your line manager.

If stress appears to be affecting your health, with your consent your line manager may refer you to the University Occupational Health Service. In such cases, the Occupational Health Physician may ask for your consent to approach your GP on a confidential basis for information about your health. Having a full picture of your health is extremely useful in such situations: any strategies that are discussed with you to deal with or manage the situation can then be made with the benefit of professional medical advice. Alternatively you may refer yourself to the Occupational Health Service, who may, in turn refer you to the staff counselling service for some confidential one-to-one sessions, if it is felt that this may be of benefit to you.

Your manager will then set up regular meetings with you to review the actions that have been identified to address the source(s) of stress. The actions will aim both to relieve stress points in the short term (perhaps by providing additional support/training, or reassigning a particular piece of work where appropriate), and to address the underlying causes in the longer term.

It is sometimes necessary for managers to invoke disciplinary procedures to address poor performance or conduct, and to protect other staff from the adverse effects of such under-performance. It is recognised that the prospect of disciplinary proceedings or the proceedings themselves may be stressful for the staff involved. This will not of itself prevent managers from pursuing legitimate management action: indeed lengthy delays in the disciplinary process may aggravate stress.

Line managers should, however, seek advice if necessary from Personnel Services and/or the Occupational Health Services as to how to support the member of staff concerned while the disciplinary process is in progress to mitigate the effects of any stress. Similar advice may be necessary in the context of the grievance procedure.

What happens if I need to be absent from work due to work-related stress?

In cases where staff are seriously affected by work-related stress and need to be absent from work, the normal rules on sickness absence and sick pay apply.

For absences of up to seven days you may self-certificate (your departmental administrator will give you a form for this) but for any absence of more than seven consecutive days (including weekends) you must ask your GP for a doctor's certificate.

If you present a doctor's certificate indicating stress as the cause of absence, the University's Occupational Health Service will be approached (with your agreement) for advice, to ensure that the issues are addressed appropriately and your return to work is carefully managed. This may involve such things as a staged return to work or some temporary adjustment of duties or work environment.

What assistance is available to me?

Information about sources of assistance for staff and managers.